Two years ago, a young woman sought care at a clinic in Iquitos, Peru, and received a devastating diagnosis: advanced cervical cancer.
Kayla C. Jelinek, OMS IV, was volunteering at the clinic that day. “My heart broke for this young woman, who had been denied access to basic medical care for most of her life,” says Jelinek, who attends the Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine (MSUCOM) in East Lansing. “The experience fueled my desire to pursue avenues for preventing cervical cancer in low-resource settings.”
Jelinek returned to Peru this fall with a nearly $5,000 grant from the American Medical Association Foundation to study the most common high-risk HPV genotypes among women in two regions of Peru.
During both of her Peru trips, Jelinek was participating in MSUCOM’s Peru global outreach program, which annually brings students and physicians to the South American nation to conduct research and provide primary care.
Jelinek is now collaborating with physicians from Universidad César Vallejo in Trujillo, who have collected 216 cervical cell samples so far. Ultimately, she hopes the data will offer insights that could guide the development of vaccines targeting the strains of HPV that are most common in Peru.
A research-focused program
MSUCOM’s 14-day Peru program is in its seventh year. Each year, around 30 MSUCOM students are selected to participate. They’re accompanied by 25 physicians and residents in specialties such as family medicine, emergency medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, and pediatrics.
Research is a key component of the program, with applicants required to describe what they’d like to investigate or explain how they could contribute to existing projects in Peru. Participants have published 37 abstracts since the program was founded, with 11 of those published this year.
Joseph L. Gorz, DO, a family medicine resident at McLaren Oakland hospital in Pontiac, Michigan, has helped plan the program since its second year. He says the program’s research emphasis is rooted in a desire to find long-term solutions to improve health and give osteopathic medical students experience they might not get in the classroom.
“Research can be very intimidating,” he says. “This experience shows students how easy it can be to break down a project, whether it’s simple or complex, and use your findings to help people.”
Sharing data with local physicians, researchers and leaders is another key element of the program.
Elise M. Craig, OMS III, worked with Peruvian pediatrician Rubén Kenny Briceño, MD, and found that arsenic levels in the school well in the village of Carancas were 10 times greater than the acceptable level provided by the World Health Organization. “We also measured the concentration of arsenic in these children’s urine and found that their risk of developing cancer is nearly three times greater than normal, which was very unsettling,” she explains.
Craig contacted students from the University of California, Berkeley’s Engineers Without Borders program, who developed a water filtration system for the school’s well. The filters, which were installed by engineers from Universidad César Vallejo, are projected to cut arsenic levels in the well by 90%. Craig plans to repeat her study to see how the children’s arsenic levels have been affected by the new filtration system.
In the future, Dr. Gorz said the program’s organizers hope to expand to include participation from other colleges of osteopathic medicine. They’re also looking into creating a permanent clinic in Iquitos that would be staffed by Peruvian medical residents and physicians from MSUCOM.