June 15, 2008

Nichols School Grad Sets Age Record As Cancer Researcher

By Andrew Rafferty, The Buffalo News, N.Y.

Jun. 15--When Rachael Kermis filled out her registration for the International Conference on Head and Neck Cancer in San Francisco, she had to leave a blank in the space for "highest degree earned."

Because nothing was filled in, it was assumed that the woman presenting a research study to a group of doctors was herself a doctor.

But at 18 years old, Kermis has yet to set foot in a college classroom, let alone a medical school.

"Somehow on my registration, I'm Dr. Rachael Kermis, because everyone else is a doctor," the Cornell University-bound teen said. "I think it has a real nice ring to it."

Kermis graduated cum laude from Nichols School on Friday. And next month, she will help present the most in-depth study ever conducted about the link between the virus that causes cervical cancer and throat cancer. It has the potential to give doctors groundbreaking insight into how people get cancer.

Kermis, a team of researchers from Roswell Park Cancer Institute and a statistics teacher at Nichols made their discovery over the past year.

"I'm the youngest person, I think by eight years," Kermis said of attending the conference.

The conference happens only once every four years, and head and neck doctors from around the world will be there. From 1,200 applications, only 10 percent of submitted papers were accepted.

Roswell Park provided Kermis with the data of 86 patients to find whether a correlation between the human papilloma-virus (HPV) and throat cancer existed. With 22 research variables, such as if the patient was a drinker or a smoker, what she was asked to do was no small task.

"If [a correlation] does exist, then you can start treating people with throat cancer with the same medicine those with HPV receive," said Kermis.

Kermis found that a correlation did exist, meaning Gardasil, a vaccine given to women to prevent HPV, could also be the cure for throat cancer.

What is also groundbreaking about the study is that a high schooler was published along with some of the most accomplished doctors in the country.

"She is the first I know of to have been published in high school," said Daniel Rosenblum, one of the leaders of Nichols Research Scholars Program, through which Kermis did her internship with Roswell Park.

Kermis said the Advanced Placement statistics class she took and a desire to break into the field of medicine gave her the know-how to complete such a complex task. She put in 50 hours per month, none of which were paid.

"It allowed me to get into the medical field without a medical degree," she said.

Kermis has spent a lot of time in hospitals, even before she was working to cure cancer. She's had 20 surgeries over her short life because of a bad immune system. Though doctors don't know exactly how to diagnose Kermis, don't put it beyond her to figure it out herself.

She has wanted to become a doctor all her life, and along with her work at Roswell Park, she volunteers in the emergency room at Women and Children's Hospital.

Kermis' humility makes it hard to understand the scope of what she's done by just talking to her. She is nonchalant about her accomplishments and what she has the potential to do.

Though she's excited over a free trip to California, she's a little worried that she and her 26- year-old roommate may not have much to talk about.

But if she sticks to talking about medicine, Kermis won't fall short of things to say. The work she's done is what would be expected from someone who has a medical degree, according to Dr. Thom Loree, the chairman of Roswell Park's department of head and neck surgery.

"She was kind of the key person in the group to do the computer data base management," Loree said. "Rachael really kind of picked up the ball."

Since the early 1990s, Loree has suspected a link between HPV and throat cancer and it was by chance he met Kermis.

Kermis was a counselor on a camping trip to Utah and Arizona that Loree's son went on in 2007. While waiting in Buffalo Niagara International Airport, Kermis told him of the work she had done in high school, and he was impressed enough to include her in the project.

"Rachael picked me up on something I've been interested in for a while," Loree said. "It's pretty advanced work for a high school student to do."

Loree was taken by the rise he's seen in throat cancer in patients who never used tobacco.

It has long been known that smoking and tobacco use increases a patient's risk of throat cancer. But studying patients who have cancer and never had those habits was the key to the findings.

"The fascinating statement in this is that . . . if everyone stops using tobacco and you vaccinate everyone with Gardasil, you may, potentially, eliminate an entire kind of cancer," Loree said.

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