In Conversation: Bryan Bunning, Lab Intern

October 2015

Every year, the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research at Stanford University accepts up to 7 undergraduate, high school and graduate interns into the laboratory. The aspiring scientists enjoy the unique opportunity to work alongside Stanford researchers, delving into a wide range of projects including: the study of proteins associated with food allergens, cell studies on immune tolerance, organ studies on gut and lung tissue, hunting for molecular targets using computer stimulation, and quality of life analyses after clinical studies are performed. All this research makes an impact on finding the causes and cures of allergy and asthma. In this profile, college student Bryan Bunning speaks to 17-year-old Matthew Friend about his experience as a Center lab intern for the Fall 2015 Teen eNews edition.

Can you tell us about yourself?

My name is Bryan Bunning and I am a rising senior at the University of Chicago. I am allergic to tree nuts, and outgrew my allergies to milk and egg when I went through puberty. I am majoring in biology and am writing my senior thesis on food allergy research. Having dealt with allergies and asthma since I was a baby and having spent a lot of my time seeing different allergists, doctors, and researchers, I am now convinced that I want a career in the sciences. Dr. Nadeau allowed me to help in her lab this past summer and I enjoyed every second of it!

What is your personal connection to the Center?

Although I am not a patient in a study at the Center, my brother, Daniel, is undergoing an oral immunotherapy (OIT) trial for his different allergens. He is going through the trial with the hope of being desensitized before leaving for his freshman year of college this fall. He is allergic to milk, tree nuts, and shellfish, and also has Eosinophilic Esophagitis (EoE).

Being involved in the study has had a tremendous effect on our family. OIT has the ability to take some of the burden out of living with food allergy. It is still important to carry an EpiPen, but OIT can take away the fear of having a deadly reaction to a food. It also reduces the fear of having a reaction due to cross-contact or cross-contamination. I feel like this is an extremely important fallback to have as a young adult. Personally, I know that it has reduced the overall anxiety of our entire family. I believe that OIT can give food allergic patients more freedom in their lives as they can do more in the world without worrying about having an anaphylactic reaction.

Can you talk to us about your experience in the Center lab?

After undergoing the necessary training in general lab safety and required HIPAA certifications, I've had the chance to learn about the lab related protocols and procedures necessary to analyze patient data collected in the clinic. This can range from separating different types of cells in your blood to doing statistical analysis on patient surveys and data.

A lot of the data is generated using a machine called a flow cytometer. This machine uses light emission to study the types of cells in a sample. Here is a link to a video that does a good job of explaining how it works. Flow cytometers are really important in immunology and allergy research because they can help us distinguish between intra and extracellular differences in the immune systems of whoever we analyze. 

Bryan and his brother, Daniel

As a lab intern, I've also had the chance to hear speeches from the world's leading allergy researchers. The Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research at Stanford University is world-renowned, having ties to other doctors in Israel, Switzerland, the UK, and all around the United States. As a food allergic person, it is both amazing and fascinating to hear what research has been done in the field of allergy. This includes the start of a new diagnostic test for food allergy and learning more about how the immune system works. The immune system is very complex and not fully understood, so understanding and learning more about the basics of immunity is critical in advancing care for those suffering with food allergy.

What was it like interning with two world-renowned allergy experts — Dr. Kari Nadeau and Dr. Ruchi Gupta?

I’ve been incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to intern for both world-renowned allergy researchers. I interned for Dr. Gupta when I was a rising sophomore in college, and assisted her in data entry and analysis for a study that evaluated the use of undesignated epinephrine in Chicago Public Schools during the 2012-2013 school year. This study really showed us the life-saving importance of carrying stock epinephrine in schools—the stock epinephrine auto-injectors were used 38 times that year!

Through her research, Dr. Gupta is trying to empirically say why it is important that we find a cure, while Dr. Nadeau is doing the hard science to make that a reality. Both sides are extremely important and worthwhile in bringing more attention to food allergy research.

What advice would you give to patients going into a food allergy oral immunotherapy trial at the Center?

If I had to give advice to patients going into the study I would say three things. First, remember to take your doses! Put a reminder on your phone or put a post-it note on your bathroom mirror. It is very important to stay consistent. Second, be honest with the doctors! If you are having any problems with the treatment make sure you tell someone about it. Everyone is working to help you. Third, do not be in a rush! I think this is one of the hardest parts of the trial. I understand the want to speed up treatment and finish everything as fast as possible. However, it is really important to complete your treatment in a slow and controlled fashion. There are no cutting corners in immunotherapy!

Interview by Matthew Friend

Matthew Friend is a high school senior from Chicago. He has written extensively about his experience as a teen with food allergies and as an oral immunotherapy clinical trial graduate in Huffington Post and Stanford School of Medicine's SCOPE blog. Read more about Matthew here.