Charlotte area teen closing in on cancer breakthrough

Teen researcher takes on cancer

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Emily Ashkin is about to graduate high school. She's easy to laugh, eager to chat with her friends and loves to watch movies. Typical 17-year-old stuff. Emily though becomes atypical when you talk to her about science.

"The lab is where I get the the most enjoyment," said Ashkin.

Her love of the lab, of science, goes back to when she was in middle school. Emily was 11 years old when her mom was diagnosed with skin cancer.

"I felt helpless and I don't like that feeling," said Ashkin.

She hopped on the internet and typed in three words. "What is cancer?"

As you'd expect, the screen exploded with information. She would spend the better part of the next three years reading about treatments, cures and hope. She says she learned how doctors and researchers all over the world were making a difference.

"I was getting tired of just reading articles. I wanted to go out and try to make a difference," said Ashkin. "So, I figured why not be a part of that?"

Well, for one, at this point she was only 14 years old. It didn't stop her though from emailing college professors and asking them if she could come work in their labs.

"I didn't want to squelch her enthusiasm," said Bobbi Hinson.

Hinson has been at Providence Day School for 40 years. She had Emily in her biology class.

"I have to admit I cautioned her about getting too excited because I wasn't quite sure how she was going to be received at a research center," said Hinson.

In the beginning, she wasn't received at all. Emily got a lot of 'no's.'

"She has learned through some hard-knocks how to respond to set backs," said Hinson.

Emily kept asking and eventually a professor at UNC Charlotte said yes. He was working on breast cancer research and agreed to let Emily come work. So, after school and in the summer, when most kids her age were relaxing, Emily was in the lab. It was her fun thing to do.

"It's so much fun," said Ashkin. "Have you been in the lab?"

"She knows how to ask the right question and when that question has been answered she knows to tweak it and turn it into another question," said Hinson. "That is what science is all about."

Emily made mistakes, learned patience and began thinking more about her mom. Her melanoma, once defeated, had come back.

"I figured it must have something to do with her body's vulnerability to be able to prevent cancer in the first place," said Ashkin.

She learned the disease evolves. It learns to hide from the immune cells sent to destroy it. Emily wanted to figure out who to unmask the cancer. Her work gained national recognition and she was part of awards ceremonies with the President. She also got the attention of the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, one of the most prestigious research facilities in the world. Her ideas would be tested in its labs.

"My work has essentially made cancer cells more uniform," said Ashkin. "I call it a lock and key relationship. The immune cells are now able to get a firmer grip on the cancer cells. It's a lot easier for them to recognize (cancer cells)."

It means the medicine cancer patients take would be more efficient, more effective. If it works out, it's no small find. In fact, what she discovered will go to clinical trials within the next two to three years. All the work of a young woman about to graduate high school. A young woman determined to save lives, including her mom's.

"I definitely have a specific passion and so I guess when I found it, there is nothing holding me back," said Ashkin.

The good news is her mom is cancer-free. As for Emily, she's headed back to MD Anderson this summer to continue her work to unlock cancer's questions. In the fall she'll be heading to nearby Rice University, majoring in biochemistry and cell biology.

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