Deutsch Research Scholarship

Deutsch Research Scholarship recipient seeks cancer treatments as unique as each patient

Sarah Burns of Columbus, Ohio, became the second recipient of the Walter A. and Laura W. Deutsch Research Scholarship in July 2021.

By Cindy Dashnaw 

Digging in the sand at her grandparents’ feet, a young Sarah Burns heard a story that would set her burgeoning interest in science aflame.

“In trying to find therapies for her ailing sister, my grandmother discovered a research group that had identified an experimental pain medication developed from the venom of a sea snail,” Burns said. “It’s my earliest memory of my interest in science. I was captivated by the power of science to improve human health.”

Now pursuing that interest, Burns is the second recipient of the Walter A. and Laura W. Deutsch Research Scholarship of the Riley Children s Foundation and Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center. But it wasn’t a direct line from the beach to cancer research.

The best of both worlds: research plus patient care

As an undergraduate biochemistry student, Burns developed an interest in cancer research by exploring how alterations to normal biological pathways can lead to disease. After graduation, she spent eight years in a research lab at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and The Ohio State University studying the tumor predisposition syndrome Neurofibromatosis type 2 (NF2). Working with NF2 patients in this lab cemented a desire for patient interaction in addition to research.

“I witnessed the indelible impact of these tumors on patients’ lives. I realized that each patient is unique and that there are many factors that influence tumor growth: genetics, inflammation, and the microenvironment. These experiences made me interested in the factors that underlie cancer – why tumors develop in different ways in different patients and why a patient’s response to a particular treatment is so unique to that person.”

“I worked in a research lab for several years while trying to decide what I wanted to do. I found that I wouldn’t be happy if I couldn’t work with patients, but the same would be true if I couldn’t do research,” she said. “I wanted to be able to think about the ways that we treat patients now and how we can use research to improve patient care in the future.”

Her interests in both research and patient care led her to pursue dual degrees in an M.D./Ph.D. program. A Midwesterner at heart, she was attracted to IU School of Medicine (IUSM) for more than its location.

“There are many opportunities for collaboration at IUSM. The Herman B Wells Center for Pediatric Research, in particular, is very collaborative and supportive. If you want to do something, there’s very likely someone who wants to work with you to do it,” she said.

She’s now working in the lab of Reuben Kapur, PhD, in the Wells Center and the IU Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center, studying factors, such as inflammation, that may predispose certain individuals to the development of hematological cancers.

Recent studies indicate that as we age, we acquire mutations in the hematopoietic stem and progenitor cells (HSPCs) that give rise to all of the blood cells in the body. While present in healthy individuals, these mutations can contribute to the development of leukemias and lymphomas.

Inflammation, which occurs clinically in many forms, such as infection, aging, cancer, autoimmune disease, and arthritis, has been implicated as a potential risk factor in the transformation of precancerous states to malignancy. Burns is working to develop several genetically engineered models to determine the roles of inflammation in HSPCs in this transformation.

Burns’ work investigating the role of interleukin 1 receptor, type 1 in hematological malignancies was supported by the Deutsch scholarship and was recently accepted for publication in the journal Leukemia. She also presented her work at the cancer center’s Cancer Research Day in October.

The scholarship provided her the opportunity to generate preliminary data to apply for research funding through the National Institutes of Health (NIH). She received a perfect score on her proposal and was awarded a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award Individual Fellowship (F30).

The Deutsch Scholarship

The Walter A. and Laura W. Deutsch Research Endowment supports Ph.D. and M.D./Ph.D. students and postdoctoral fellows pursuing degrees in biomedical sciences who have demonstrated potential for conducting oncology research. Successful applicants are students or fellows with a strong academic record, outstanding character and well-defined professional goals.

Learn More

About the Author

Cindy Dashnaw Jackson finds and tells nonprofit stories that inspire audiences to share, show up and support. She honed her ability to craft a message that fits an audience during 20 years in nonprofit PR and communications. Now a freelancer and founder of Cause Communications LLC, she's a copywriter and storyteller for nonprofits across the United States. And she earned her degree at IUPUI.


Support Our Research