SEPTEMBER 2010 | VOL. 11 NO. 1  
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Creighton Researcher Sees DNA of Cancer Cells
 Eugene Curtin
Freelance Writer
Creighton University

If historians some day have the happy task of recording how cancer was conquered they might devote a few words to Jill Hagenkord’s eureka moment.

Hagenkord, director of Molecular Pathology and Clinical Genomics at Creighton University Medical Center, found a way to see into the actual DNA of cancer cells, a feat that reveals the intimate structure of a cancer cell and allows physicians to devise individualized treatments targeting a particular cancer cell’s weakness.

It’s a big step forward, and Dr. Hagenkord, who earned her medical degree at Stanford University, (she did her residency in pathology at the University of California, San Francisco and the University of Iowa, and completed a double fellowship at the University of Pittsburgh), smiles as she recalls how the breakthrough came about.

As most high-tech breakthroughs do these days, it involved a computer.

The research project she was assigned to as a fellow was stalled, so she found herself with little to do. So she begged her supervisor for work and he gave her a project he had been attempting unsuccessfully to develop.

The idea involved taking a sample of cancer cell DNA and scanning it into a computer where specialized software would reconstruct its chromosomal profile and permit a high resolution view of the cancer DNA.

The potential was enormous, for cancers that look quite similar under a microscope might look very different at the DNA level and might yield information that would permit more targeted and effective treatment.

For three months, Hagenkord worked on this assignment. And then, quite simply, she did it. It worked. She could see, virtually and close up, the DNA of a cancer cell.

It was a great moment.

“It was like I was seeing something that God didn’t want me to see,” she said.

Of course a medical breakthrough wouldn’t be half the fun without a name that glazes the eye. They call it Single Nucletotide Polymorphism Array Karyotyping.

It is a modern spin on an existing technique rather than an entirely new concept.

Chromosomes have long been viewed under microscopes (conventional karyotyping), and much can be gleaned from what they reveal; for example, whether a child will be born with Down Syndrome, or the general nature of a particular cancer. But the high resolution that is achieved using Hagenkord’s virtual karyotyping permits a much closer look at the inner machinations of cancer.

Sometimes this enhanced ability to analyze yields bad news, as when Hagenkord’s opinion was sought regarding a suspected brain tumor that doctors had dismissed as probably not even cancer. But her DNA analysis revealed that the tumor was indeed an aggressive cancer that required aggressive treatment.

Hagenkord is a native of Altoona, Iowa, and in 2009 was looking for work closer to home just as Creighton was looking for a molecular pathologist, Hagenkord’s specialty.

Creighton was not shy about seeking Hagenkord’s services, and for good reason. She possesses fellowship training in molecular genetic pathology and pathology/oncology informatics and is widely considered an expert in the field of virtual karyotyping.

She said it was clear during her job interview that Creighton’s medical faculty fully understood the import of her virtual karyotyping and how it could enhance the effectiveness - and competitiveness - of Creighton Medical Laboratories.

Creighton Medical Labs provides in-house testing for patients at Creighton University Medical Center and contracts with iKaryos Diagnostics (http://www.ikaryos.com) for virtual karyotyping.

iKaryos is a collaborative venture between Hagenkord, Creighton University, and private investors that provides virtual karyotyping services to the wider medical community, not just Creighton Medical Center.

The company recently announced an exclusive distribution agreement that would allow it to offer diagnostic services to Asia-Pacific and the Middle East.

iKaryos was first in the field. Hagenkord said three or four competitors have sprung up since word has spread about the effectiveness of virtual karyotyping. Still, Hagenkord said, her early start has put iKaryos far ahead of the others. She said she already has on file between 2,500 and 3,000 cancer genomes whose abnormalities have been revealed under her virtual microscope.

Some of these she has on her office wall, with little lines darting up and down, displaying abnormalities where the line darts up or down rather too sharply. These lines represent her discovery. They are lines that did not exist, that tell tales that could not have been told, before the confluence of computers and curiosity made possible such innovations.

Hagenkord gives special credit to Creighton University not just for recognizing the significance of her work but for being “nimble” enough to do something about it.

“Because Creighton is a smaller school, it’s able to be a lot more creative,” she said. “It can be very nimble creating such a collaborative effort in a matter of months.”