Melanie's Story: From Trial Participant to Clinic Intern
Internships allow one to gain valuable insight and assist in helping decide career paths. The Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research at Stanford University welcomes high school and undergraduate interns each summer. We benefit from their enthusiasm and energy and their valuable assistance in the lab and clinic. Melanie Shojinaga spent 2 months, during the summer of 2017, assisting with the many clinical studies underway at the Center.
During her internship, Melanie checked with the staff each morning to see what she could assist with that day. Some of her tasks involved digitizing consent forms, calming a child who was anxious about being tested for allergies, or making sure that things were on schedule. “With around 16 ongoing clinical trials, there was always something for me to learn and help with,” she said.
Melanie is currently majoring in Neurobiology, Physiology, and Behavior at the University of California at Davis. At the clinic, she regularly attended weekly clinic staff meetings and occasionally the group’s weekly research lab meetings. “I took an immunology class at UC Davis and now after having interned here, it is all making so much more sense and I have a much better perspective on why the mechanistic details are so important,” she said.
Melanie has known about the Center since she was in high school. She was diagnosed with peanut allergy when, as an infant, she took a bite of a peanut butter jelly sandwich. “My father says that I looked like the boxer (after a fight) in the movie Rocky,” she recalled. “I was immediately rushed to the emergency room. After being tested for allergies, it was determined that in addition to peanuts, I was allergic to some tree nuts, pollen, and cats,” she continued.
Similar to other children with food allergies, she found it difficult socially. “Having allergies growing up was difficult and I often downplayed my allergies in order to fit in,” Melanie said. “My parents were great and they did a lot of research and took many precautions to keep me safe. They always packed me special treats that I could safely eat when I went to birthday parties and other social occasions. They researched the menus at many restaurants and eventually found a few restaurants that they felt were safe for me to eat at. They kept Benadryl and epinephrine injectors handy and taught themselves and me how to use them. I always wore a medical bracelet that indicated that I had food allergies,” she added. These precautions have helped keep her safe from severe reactions. On a positive side, she said that having food allergies forced her to eventually learn to speak up and advocate for herself.
When Melanie’s mother found out about the clinical trials underway at Stanford, she immediately got on the waiting list. Soon Melanie was enrolled in the Peanut Reactivity Reduced by Oral Tolerance in an Anti-IgE Clinical Trial (PRROTECT). It was a big commitment and the requirement that she eat the foods she had painstakingly avoided all her life was scary. During her initial food challenge with peanuts, her throat got itchy and dry. However, the clinical team was prepared and helped ease her anxiety. She persisted and completed the immunotherapy trial and was desensitized to peanuts before she started college. For the first 6 months after the end of the trial, she was on a maintenance dose of 16 peanuts, after which it was reduced to one peanut a day. “I was so happy to have it reduced. I eat my peanut daily but I think it tastes awful and will probably never learn to enjoy eating peanuts.” She is thankful for having been able to participate in the trial as it has brought overall peace of mind to her and her family. It has enabled her to travel with more confidence and be more adventurous with the foods she eats without having to worry about having an anaphylactic reaction from accidental consumption. As part of some of the Center’s long-term follow-up studies, Melanie continued to come in every 6 months to the clinic for blood draws and skin prick tests. Information obtained from these tests can aid researchers to further understand immune cells changes that occur with desensitization and the amount of allergen that needs to be consumed (if any) to maintain desensitization after the end of therapy.
Even after immunotherapy, Melanie continues to have allergies to tree nuts, but they are not as severe as her allergies to peanuts were. A recent clinical trial conducted by the Center has found that multifood oral immunotherapy in conjunction with the anti-IgE drug, omalizumab, enables safe and rapid desensitization simultaneously to multiple allergens. These results provide hope for the estimated 30% of individuals with food allergies, who like Melanie, have allergies to multiple foods.
Melanie said that her experiences as a patient and as an intern at the clinic were wonderful and that the staff made her feel very welcome and always seemed happy to answer her questions.
Working at the Center has made her consider being a physician’s assistant at a clinical research center similar to the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research. She is also exploring the path of a physician’s assistant in Emergency Medicine.
We thank Melanie for her hard work and dedication. We wish her good luck at college and beyond!
Interview by Vanitha Sampath
Vanitha Sampath received her PhD in Nutrition from the University of California at Davis. At the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research, as a medical writer and content manager, she enjoys being in the midst of groundbreaking research in asthma and allergy and is committed to communicating the scientific advances of the Center and spreading awareness of its mission and vision.