By Jan Joslin/Photos by Sarah Pack of MUSC
Ingrid Bonilla ’16 dreams big. But she will admit that living her dream is even more than she ever imagined.
She has wanted to be a doctor since she was a child. Her mother’s battle with breast cancer further fueled those dreams and gave her the tenacity to pursue every avenue to attend the Medical University of South Carolina. She enrolled in medical school in August 2018, a little more than two years after she received her bachelor of science in biology with a preprofessional emphasis from CSU. And almost two years after her mother’s death.
Bonilla wasn’t idle during those two years. When she wasn’t immediately accepted into the four-year MD program at MUSC, she pursued a job in research. Having trouble making inroads into a system where she didn’t have any connections, she mentioned her frustration to CSU’s then director of integrated marketing, John Strubel. He called a friend in the MUSC public relations office who was able to get her file into the right hands. The result was a clinical research position in the office of Dr. Nancy DeMore, professor, surgeon and the BMW Endowed Chair in Cancer Research at MUSC.
She was thrilled to spend her days doing what she loved and fighting what she hated.
In 2014 Bonilla, Kelly Anderson, a 2015 CSU biochemistry graduate, and Dr. Amy Albrecht, professor of biochemistry, began researching the effect of frankincense on breast cancer cells in Albrecht’s CSU lab.
Albrecht said it is unusual for an undergraduate student to take their project with them. Usually undergraduates work on their mentor’s project. But, DeMore was intrigued with what Albrecht, Bonilla and Anderson had done at CSU and wanted to explore it further.
The project was grandfathered into the MUSC Hollings Cancer Center as a sponsored study. Currently, the project is in the clinical trial stages at MUSC. Albrecht said, “Never did I imagine that this work would become a clinical trial. One can dream and hope that your work is influential, but I didn’t think it would happen so quickly. Ingrid was blessed to become a part of a research lab that was able to take her passion and turn it into a clinical trial. It is amazing and wonderful.”
The project is studying the effect of boswellic acid, the chemical compound in frankincense, on patients with invasive breast cancer. There is currently no other known clinical trial, or if it has been performed, it was never published. Bonilla and DeMore plan to publish the results in a breast cancer journal for clinical studies.
As part of the clinical trial, Bonilla and DeMore applied for permission to use boswellic acid for trial in human subjects through the Federal Drug Administration as an investigational new drug.
A pharmaceutical company sponsored making the drug and provided all the batches for free. Patients interested in a clinical trial were screened and accepted into the study.
After receiving a diagnosis of cancer, the patients started taking the drug and continued taking it up until the night before they had surgery. DeMore’s lab received samples of the tumors from the patients’ surgery. “We are looking at the biological efficacy of the drug – the effect on the tumors,” said Bonilla.
“Our goal is killing tumor cells and not killing healthy cells,” said Bonilla. Thus far, the data looks encouraging. “We are not seeing a loss of immune system in patients,” she said.
The next step involves compiling all the data from the trial, which includes information from diaries the patients kept during the trial. The data will be sent to specialists who will determine the effect on the tumors. More research will be performed. “We think the drug has potential to work on more than breast cancer,” said Bonilla. “We are seeing good results in pancreatic, prostate and colon cancer in mice. Whether that will translate in some way to the human body – we don’t know until we try.”
She said, “Seeing results keeps me encouraged. Why not? Let’s keep moving forward. God has a plan for everything. If He’s using this for treatment, it will be. Or it may be to help me learn more about clinical trials.”
Albrecht’s research students are still studying breast cancer and alternative treatments for breast cancer. Albrecht said, “In the lab where Ingrid works at MUSC, they have the ability to do studies involving mice and humans that we at CSU don’t have.” However, she points out, “Their clinical trial work has shown what we suspected during our work at CSU.”
Before she began medical school in the fall, Bonilla trained other MUSC students to work on the project. “Other surgical residents are collaborating to gain clinical lab experience,” said Bonilla. Between fall and spring semesters of med school, she worked in the lab running experiments on the second half of the patient samples.
Bonilla hopes to become a pediatric oncologist and build on her clinical research time. She said medical school is hard but rewarding.
“It is a blessing to wake up and learn so much,” said Bonilla. “God has shown me this is where He wanted me to be. I have to remember that when I have 13-hour days in the library, and I’m wishing I had a normal day. I have to realize someone’s life – maybe someone not born yet – is going to depend on me one day.”
And if a life is saved one day from a drug created as a result of research Bonilla has had a part in, the hard work will have been worth it.
Photos by Sarah Pack, MUSC
First photo: Bonilla holding the boswellic acid compound that is currently in a clinical trial at MUSC. Second photo: Ingrid Bonilla and Dr. Nancy DeMore in Dr. DeMore’s research lab at the Medical University of South Carolina.
Article first published in CSU Magazine, Spring 2019