TGen intern finds joy in research, Honors trips

Pre-med junior Brian Durbin has served on two Honors College medical mission trips to Baja California in Mexico and just completed an internship at the Translational Genomics Research Institute.

Brian Durbin doesn’t hesitate. Even when the Grand Canyon University pre-med junior is unsure of his footing. Even when the path ahead is dark.

The same goes for his decision to serve on medical mission trips and to work with cancer patients, a passion he discovered after recently shadowing an oncologist.

“It was an amazing experience and also something that provided a lot of perspective,” said the Honors College standout. “I can see how he, despite having patients who were struggling quite a bit, was able to find the joy and find the reward out of having that sort of an impact on people’s lives and helping them through those difficult situations.”

Like that oncologist, Durbin wants to have the same kind of impact, whether he’s serving remote communities in underdeveloped countries or in a clinic helping to fight cancer.

Helios Scholar

When an opportunity arose to delve into cancer research as a Helios Scholar at the Translational Genomics Research Institute, Durbin couldn’t let the opportunity pass him by.

“It was really hard to get,” he said of the “extreme” two-round vetting process for the summer internship at TGen, an Arizona-based nonprofit research facility. About 300 to 400 apply for internships a year, Durbin said, and after about half are eliminated, TGen sends the names of the remaining applicants to multiple labs. Durbin interviewed with two labs and was offered a position in April.

Besides the Honors College programs he participated in that helped lead to him to TGen, what also made him stand out, he said, was his hands-on experience in GCU’s Anatomy and Dissection Research and Design Program group. Durbin worked in the College of Science, Engineering and Technology's cadaver lab, where he also mentored students.

He just completed the prestigious, paid eight-week scholarship at TGen, which is affiliated with City of Hope, ranked among the nation’s “Best Hospitals” in cancer by U.S. News and World Report. Researchers work to unravel the genetic components of complex diseases, such as cancer, rare childhood disorders, neurological disorders and infectious disease.

Durbin spent his summer in an applied cancer and drug discovery lab working on a new drug to treat breast cancer. The drug inhibits a certain enzyme that’s found to be overexpressed in various types of cancer, meaning the body is making too many copies of those proteins.

During his internship, Durbin tested a new drug on an aggressive form of cancer called triple-negative breast cancer. Durbin will be president of the Honors STEMists this year, will helm a third Honors medical mission trip and was offered a job at TGen to continue his research.

Durbin is working with a subtype of breast cancer called triple-negative breast cancer.

It accounts for 10-15% of all breast cancers and is more common in women younger than age 40 who are Black or have a BRCA1 (breast cancer type 1) mutation. In this subtype, cancer cells do not have estrogen or progesterone receptors and don’t make any, or too much, of the protein HER2.

According to cancer.org, triple-negative breast cancer differs from other types of invasive breast cancer because it grows and spreads faster, has fewer treatment options and tends to have a worse prognosis.

“It is really aggressive and really hard to treat,” said Durbin from his home in Wisconsin, where he was spending a little time before returning to GCU for the fall semester.

He placed the drug on cell lines that modeled the triple-negative breast cancer to see if it was effective against it.

“From that study, we were able to get some exciting data considering the future of triple-negative breast cancer treatment. It was very complex – it was past my pay grade – but it was cool to be able to work on some applied breast cancer research that could end up being used in a clinic somewhere down the road,” Durbin said.

Working in a clinical setting isn’t anything new for Durbin.

He has served on multiple medical mission trips – several to Guatemala when he was in high school and two to Baja California in Mexico as a GCU student on Honors College medical missions with Well Child International, which brings health clinics to communities that don’t have easy access to medical care.

Honors medical mission trips

His first Honors College medical mission in 2021 to Puerto Peñasco, better known as Rocky Point, was one of the first mission trips for GCU students after pausing global service opportunities in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Durbin and other Honors students conducted surveys, recorded patient vitals, helped with vaccination clinics and observed the hospitals’ COVID and quarantine facilities.

“It was definitely a cool experience to be able to be one of the first teams after something so crazy as COVID,” Durbin said.

For his latest trip to Puerto Peñasco in April and May, Durbin stepped up as the trip leader and experienced the mission through the eyes of other GCU Honors students living it for the first time.

Both trips, he said, were eye-opening.

“There’s just a lot of things we take for granted in our medical system, things like MRIs and CAT scans. ... They had none of that stuff."

Especially on that first trip.

“They were salvaging and saving every syringe, every needle they were using, just because funding for their medical care, for their health care system, is just not the same as it is here in the United States.”

It’s very fascinating to me, peering over the edge of discovery a little bit. You’re kind of at the brink of some spaces where nobody else has studied.

Honors College student/pre-med junior Brian Durbin

Durbin has realized on these mission trips, “There’s a whole world out there” beyond what he has known growing up in the United States.

“Brian has such a servant heart and is truly a brilliant student,” said Honors College and Study Abroad Program Manager Anya Cofrancesco, who has mentored Durbin for the last two years and organized many of the programs in the college he participated in that helped lead to his TGen internship opportunity.

He plans to return with the Honors College to Puerto Peñasco for a third time in 2023, sandwiching that trip between his studies, his duties as president of the Honors STEMists and his new role at TGen.

At the end of his internship, he was hand-picked to give an oral presentation about his research, and he also was offered a job.

“I’ll be pursuing my research further and getting involved in a few more projects along the way. That’s the exciting thing that came down the pipeline.”

He added of his foray into research, “It’s very fascinating to me, peering over the edge of discovery a little bit. You’re kind of at the brink of some spaces where nobody else has studied.”

Durbin said what also is fascinating is his how his TGen internship and his missionary work have given him a glimpse of what he wants his life to be.

The internship, “very much confirmed it to be sure,” he said of continuing on his path to becoming a doctor, a calling he’s following without hesitation.

GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.

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Related content:

GCU News: Honors student researches cancer cures at internship

GCU News: Baja mission trip was moving for Honors students

GCU News: Honors students make memories on mission trip

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