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Medical student receives fellowship to study degenerative arthritis

Alpha Omega Alpha National Honor Medical Society honors Kim

by Kristina SauerweinAugust 23, 2019

Matt Miller

Dongyeon “Joanna” Kim, a second-year medical student at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, is one of 50 recipients of a $5,000 summer research fellowship from the Alpha Omega Alpha National Honor Medical Society.

The Carolyn L. Kuckein Student Research Fellowship Award supports Kim’s research on osteoarthritis, a common, degenerative joint disease that afflicts tens of millions of adults nationwide. The chronic and often painful condition can occur in any joint; however, it most often affects joints in the knees, fingers, toes, hips, lower back and neck. Currently, no targeted treatments exist.

Kim is studying genetic mouse models as well as other techniques to better understand the role of specific genes in regulating osteoarthritis. She has been working in the lab of Regis O’Keefe, MD, PhD, the Fred C. Reynolds Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery and head of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery. O’Keefe is a national leader in musculoskeletal research.

“Joanna has been a great addition to our research team,” said O’Keefe, orthopedic surgeon-in-chief at Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. “Our laboratory has defined genetic changes that occur when patients develop osteoarthritis, and Joanna has developed a creative research proposal that examines whether a specific pathway can prevent joint degeneration. Joanna brings passion, enthusiasm and a clear commitment to making a difference in the lives of patients.”

The fellowship allows Kim to spend 10 weeks researching degenerative joint disease. “Switching genes on and off has huge influences on joint health, and enzymes that mediate these changes are involved in osteoarthritis,” said Kim, president of the Class of 2022. “My project aims to see if we can protect cells or mice from developing osteoarthritis by targeting this cellular pathway with a drug approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Researching a known drug as a treatment for osteoarthritis is advantageous because there is significantly reduced safety risk for patients, and it provides a more expedient and cost-effective path to clinical use.

“As a medical student interested in academic medicine, I think there is nothing more captivating than the power of discoveries and the role of research in medicine,” Kim added. “Working in a lab with remarkable mentors has allowed me to gain an appreciation for the rigorous examinations and technical details that advance medicine. I am very excited about this opportunity to participate in a project that is looking to bring novel treatments to many individuals worldwide.”

Only one student per school is allowed to apply for the fellowship each year. Nominations were submitted by 84 medical schools.

“The competition for this student fellowship program is immense,” said the School of Medicine’s Morton E. Smith, MD, a professor emeritus of ophthalmology and visual sciences, associate dean emeritus and councilor for the university’s Alpha Omega Alpha chapter. “Impressively, Joanna is the School of Medicine’s fourth winner in a row. We are both excited for and proud of Joanna and our past recipients.”

Kristina covers pediatrics, surgery, medical education and student life. In 2020, she received a gold Robert G. Fenley Writing Award for general staff writing from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), and in 2019, she received the silver award. Kristina is an author and former reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Los Angeles Times, where she was part of a team of journalists that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for breaking news. Additionally, she covered the 2014 Ferguson unrest for TIME magazine and, for eight years, wrote a popular parenting column for