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Joshua Wright: Preserving Hearts and Strengthening Bones

One premed student's Boston internships open his eyes to a plethora of possibilities in medicine.

The BYU Summer Premedical Research Internship Program, founded by BYU alumni Dr. Britlyn Orgill (BIO ’11) and Dr. Joshua Jaramillo (BA ’09), enables students to obtain high-quality research experience at leading medical schools in the country. Joshua Wright (MMBIO ’24) is one of the many students who participated and gained invaluable insights that have opened his eyes to different opportunities and fields in medicine.

Preserving Hearts

After joining the program in 2022, Wright worked under Dr. Shannon Tessier at Shriners Children’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts to research long-term organ storage. “They want [the organ donor bank] to be an actual bank with shelves and shelves of donated hearts you could store indefinitely,” Wright explains. “It could really transform the way we conduct transplant medicine.”

Joshua Wright smiling next to a microscope in a lab.
Photo by Tanner Frost

Currently, donated organs maintain viability for only a short time, giving health professionals a narrow window to transport the organ and perform the life-saving operation. With a long-term storage solution, organs could be stored until a solid match is found, resulting in a shorter waiting period for those in need of a transplant. Additionally, long-term storage could increase transplantation rates in countries that currently lack the infrastructure to perform transplants.

Quite simply, Wright notes, an organ bank “could save a lot of lives.”

Tessier’s work is inspired by torpor, a state of suspended animation found naturally in animals such as the wood frog. In winter, the wood frog hibernates and freezes, allowing ice to form around its organs and cells. Its heart, lungs, brain, and muscles are inactive, but come spring, the frog thaws and continues its life. Tessier is researching the physiology and biochemistry of torpor and the possibility of inducing it in human tissues to preserve donated organs.

Wright contributed to this research by experimenting with zebrafish, a species genetically similar to humans. He tested the zebrafish under diverse conditions to determine if the various drugs limited their metabolism. Wright appreciated the opportunity to engage with Tessier's lab in their efforts to extend organ preservation. "I had a really great mentor,” Wright reflects.

Strengthening Bones

Joshua Wright adding a sample to a Petri dish.
Photo by Tanner Frost

The following summer, Wright returned to Boston and worked for Dr. Christina Jacobsen, an MD/PhD who treats kids with osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as brittle bone disease. Osteogenesis imperfecta is a genetic disease that causes bones to fracture and break easily. These breaks can happen after minor trauma, such as a fall, or even with no apparent cause. Taking off a sweater was enough to break the arm of one of Jacobsen’s patients.

In her clinical work, Jacobsen was struck by how the symptom severity of osteogenesis imperfecta varies from patient to patient. Even among family members with the same genetic mutation, one could have mild symptoms, while another could have severe symptoms. Jacobsen believes symptom severity is determined by the known mutation along with additional contributing genes. “Understanding those contributing genes could inform better treatment options,” Wright explains.

In pursuit of these unknown genetic factors, Wright spent the summer turning stem cells into bone cells. “It would be like we had bones on a plate, so we could test different treatment options or even just understand the disease,” Wright says. Without a way to collect significant bone samples from patients with osteogenesis imperfecta, lab-grown cells make research on the disease possible.

Forging Connections

In addition to gaining laboratory and clinical experience during his internships, Wright formed relationships that are guiding his career and life.

“I went to Boston seeking a diverse look into what a career as a ‘physician-scientist’ would look like,” Wright recounts. “I definitely found it!” He assumed that to be both a doctor and a researcher he had to earn an MD/PhD. Networking with professionals and talking with his mentors helped Wright see that there are other ways to combine patient care and research. “I met MDs who only conduct research and never see patients, MD/PhD surgeons who see dozens of patients every week and do less research, nurse researchers, MDs with master’s degrees, and so on.”

Wright doubts he would have come to this realization without networking in Boston, an area where he could talk to dozens of MD/PhDs and gain a broader perspective on his career possibilities.

Wright also gained his most important relationship of all in Boston—while attending a local ward, he met his wife.

Wright gratefully acknowledges that the outstanding research he participated in, the mentorship he received, and the relationships and network connections he made in Boston would be impossible without receiving funding from donors, alumni, and friends of the College of Life Sciences and BYU. Thanks to donations, the BYU Summer Premedical Research Internship Program offers BYU students research opportunities in professional labs at no cost to the researchers. “This allows us to get into more competitive labs,” Wright affirms. BYU premed students aren’t just getting experiences—they’re getting the best experiences possible.