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Love for Science and Family Make DRI Observership Especially Meaningful for Teen

An extreme passion for science and enormous love for her family motivated 16-year-old Chloe Liebenthal to forego social time during her summer break for an observership at the Diabetes Research Institute in Miami. An observership gives high school students an opportunity to shadow and observe scientists inside the DRI labs to learn firsthand about the innovative research that is being done to find a cure for diabetes.

Chloe wanted to absorb all the knowledge she could with hope that one day she may be able to help her mom, Adrienne, and her younger sister, Chelsea, 11, both of whom have type 1 diabetes.

“After seeing how much I have enjoyed doing research that takes place here at the DRI, I definitely think scientific research is in my future,” Chloe said. “My experience has been great. I have been learning a lot.”

Chloe worked with the team headed by Midhat Abdulreda, Ph.D., assistant professor at the DRI and the Department of Surgery.  Dr. Abdulreda, together with Per-Olof Berggren, Ph.D., head of Cell Biology and Signal Transduction, developed the “living window” model, which allowed researchers to view for the first time how cells function within a living organism through the anterior chamber of the eye (ACE). Now, Drs. Abdulreda and Berggren and their team, in conjunction with Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, are gearing up for a new clinical trial that will test the safety of transplanting islets into the ACE with the goal of preventing the immune system from attacking the cells without the need for long-term immunosuppression.

“We are very excited about this first-of-a kind trial, as it will evaluate the safety and efficacy of transplanting islets in the human eye, both of which have been demonstrated in preclinical models. While this is a first step towards establishing this new site for clinical islet transplantation, it is a critical one because it opens the door for the possibility of inducing immune tolerance towards the transplanted islets, based on our latest research,” said Dr. Abdulreda.

During her observership, Chloe learned about some of this research while working with team member Luis F. Hernandez, M.D.  A typical day consisted of looking into microscopes to see islets, taking images, checking records, reading articles and pondering the results of experiments with her mentor, Dr. Hernandez.

“A young person like Chloe who spends her time in a lab, like me – eight hours in a lab and never gets bored – she has excellent conditioning to be a scientist,” said Dr. Hernandez, who has more than 50 years of professional experience with a specialty in neuroscience.

Dr. Hernandez and Chloe displayed the classic teacher-student relationship. Dr. Hernandez would tell Chloe his findings, she would ask questions, and he would patiently explain what happened and his thought process. 

“When you have been teaching for a long time, you see the eyes of the student, and it shines a little bit with their ideas. That’s what happened with Chloe,” Dr. Hernandez said. “I hope she will find a lot of answers to questions that we have not been able to find.”

Dr. Hernandez described his young mentee as highly motivated and exceptionally intrigued about learning as much as she could about type 1 diabetes.

“She points to a specific problem working at 50 percent and expresses her frustration as she wants it to work at 100 percent,” Dr. Hernandez said. “In high school, I was working in microbiology with one of the teachers and looking at the different type of bacteria. I liked that type of work a lot, and I interacted with them the way that Chloe is interacting with me right now.”

Dr. Abdulreda also expressed enthusiasm about providing Chloe with this hands-on experience alongside his team.

“I was very pleased that Chloe decided to join us for an observership during her summer break. This speaks volumes about her interest in diabetes and the research ongoing at the DRI. And seeing the impact of this experience on her is extremely rewarding to us as scientists. It reinforces our commitment to finding a cure." Dr. Abdulreda continued, "I hope Chloe continues to pursue a career path as a research scientist, and I will be looking forward to welcoming her back in the lab.”

Through her observership work, Chloe was amazed by many things she learned.

“I was surprised about how many angles they can approach the problem of type 1 diabetes. I am looking at it from an immunology point of view, but there are so many different ways that diabetes interacts with the body,” Chloe said. “I think it’s really interesting that all these fields of science can come together to work towards the cure.”

Chloe first became aware of the Institute’s research when she and her family visited the DRI’s exhibit booth at the Children with Diabetes Friends for Life Conference in 2013. After that, the Liebenthal family toured the Institute, which further enhanced Chloe’s interest.

“Growing up with my mother and my sister both having type 1 diabetes, it’s never just been a subject of abstract research to me. It’s been part of daily life, and it’s something they have to really understand and be in control of,” Chloe said. “I know more about how they control their diabetes. It makes me really excited to think of how some day there is going to be a cure, and they will be able to have a snack without having to see how many carbs are in it.”

As for her future with the DRI, Chloe said she wants to keep in touch with Dr. Hernandez and possibly come back to volunteer and do some hands-on work. She is also optimistic for the future of finding a cure for diabetes.

“I would really encourage everyone to take an interest in the research taking place here because it really is just mind-blowing to think how far it’s come in the past few decades, and it’s only going to get more advanced,” Chloe said. “I really believe a cure is in the future, and I believe the DRI is the best shot in finding it.”

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