Ms. Christen Khella – 2017 Steven A. Cox Scholar

Christen Khella was born and raised in Cairo, Egypt. She received her bachelors of science in Biotechnology and Biomolecular Chemistry from Cairo University Faculty of Science where she was ranked fifth in her graduating class.

Growing up, Christen had a passion for science and medicine. Early on, she imagined herself as a pediatrician, but as she grew older, she discovered that she was more excited by research and discovering how the human body works. She found that she enjoyed staring at cells under the microscope wondering how they worked at the molecular level and, when things went wrong, how diseases could develop. As she progressed in school and her training, she found she was excited by designing experiments and analyzing data to answer these fundamental questions to not only understand how disease developed but how to use that information to treat and ultimately cure these patients.

Christen’s first exposure to the word “cancer” was in her middle school years when her best friend Marina was diagnosed with late stage Leukemia. She vividly remembers the tears in Marina’s parent’s eyes and the endless “why” and “how” questions she asked herself during that time. After graduating from college, Christen decided to volunteer in the Children’s Cancer Hospital 57357 (named after the bank account in which donations used to build the hospital were deposited), which is located in Cairo, Egypt and is one of the largest children’s hospitals in the world. There she spent six months being trained in laboratories of the molecular biology, cytogenetics, and basic research departments. During her time at Hospital 57357, she recognized the significance of the research she was doing and the potential impact it had on the lives of cancer patients and their families. As a result of this experience, Christen decided to dedicate her career to cancer research.

However, amid the political and cultural upheaval brought about by the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, Christen, her parents and three younger sisters left Egypt and immigrated to the United States, seeking a better life, more security, and more opportunities. After settling in northern New Jersey, Christen dedicated herself to preparing to apply to Ph.D. programs in graduate schools in the United States. She took a two-year unpaid internship in the Genomics and Biomarkers program at the Hackensack Medical Center, where she worked on discovering prognostic biomarkers for mantle cell lymphoma. Seeking to stay relatively close to her family in New Jersey, in 2015, Christen applied and was offered admission to the Molecular Biosciences Ph.D. program at Rutgers University.

Christen is a currently a third year Ph.D. candidate in the Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology Ph.D. program at Rutgers University and a member of Dr. Michael Gatza’s  laboratory at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey. Her research focuses on identifying the molecular and genetic causes of High-grade Serous Ovarian Cancer, a disease that is diagnosed in more than 21,000 women and accounts for more than 14,000 deaths in the United States each year. Unfortunately, there is no single known cure for this disease. This is due to the fact that there is no single genetic cause of this disease and each of the more than 21,000 diagnosed patients has a unique set of genetic mutations that are necessary for her tumor to develop, grow and respond to treatment. Christen is interested in understanding the genetic causes that determine why some patient’s tumors will respond to standard treatment strategies while other women’s tumor are resistant to the same exact medicines. She is investigating if tumors in these patients that do not respond to treatment have different genetic “wiring” than tumors in patients that can be successfully treated. She does this research by using statistical and mathematical algorithms to analyze more than one hundred thousand pieces of genetic and proteomic data from hundreds of ovarian tumors. Once she has identified candidate genes, Christen goes into the laboratory to do experiments. In the lab, she can engineer ovarian cancer cells so that she can control the activity of her candidate gene; she can turn the gene off, turn it on a little, or turn in on a lot. This allows her to investigate the molecular mechanisms by which this particular gene or mutation is contributing to a specific tumor feature. By identifying the genetic mutations prevalent in tumors that are resistant to current treatments, and determining how these alteration contribute to tumor development, her research will allow for the development of personalized combinations of medicines to best treat each patient based on the genetic causes of her ovarian tumor.

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