JABSOM PhD sees parallels between severe COVID-19 and her research in severe sepsis

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Carmen Campbell has been studying the response between endothelial cells, which line all blood vessels and regulate exchanges between the bloodstream and its surrounding tissues and cytokines, cell-signaling molecules that aid cell to cell communication in immune responses. Specifically, her main goal is to evaluate the response of endothelial cells to sepsis-related cytokines in vitro, outside of the body.

Currently, a clinically-applicable, real-time bedside method to assess the affects of sepsis-related cytokines on vascular health is lacking. According to Campbell, point-of-care assessment of inflammatory cytokines in blood plasma samples is virtually non-existent because the tests are very expensive and labor intensive. Her drive to study sepsis, the body’s overactive and life-threatening immune response to an infection, came from personal experience.

“My mother nearly died of urosepsis so I was highly motivated to learn as much as possible about sepsis and septic shock,” said Campbell. “Specifically, I wanted to understand more about how some individuals overcome sepsis while others do not, as well as to explore the similarities and applications to COVID-19 infection.”

Campbell is graduating with her PhD in Biomedical Sciences at the University of Hawaiʻi John A. Burns School of Medicine (UH JABSOM). Before that, she earned a BA in molecular, cellular and developmental biology from the University of Colorado and her MSc in environmental quality and ecology from Tel-Aviv University. Originally from a small town in Kentucky, Campbell took a post-high school graduation trip to Hawaiʻi that changed the course of her life.

“I was so impressed by the unique tropical climate, the beautiful beaches and the friendly locals that I decided to someday make Hawaiʻi my home,” said Campbell.

In 2014, Campbell moved to Hawaiʻi and was accepted into two PhD programs at UH, deciding on the Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program with a focus on Clinical and Translational Research. She says that this program was appealing because it allowed her to keep her full-time job as a study coordinator at the Tripler Army Medical Center.

She says that her experience at JABSOM has prepared her well for future endeavors, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There are many parallels between severe sepsis and severe COVID-19. I believe my research experience at JABSOM has opened the door to follow-up research that could shape the way both sepsis and COVID-19 are assessed,” Campbell said. “Furthermore, my results provide a foundation for correlating measured cell responses to different stages of sepsis based on the presence of specific cytokines or cytokine combinations that may be present in the plasma of sepsis patients. This may someday improve diagnosis and provide a more personalized approach to treating sepsis patients and potentially improving outcomes.”

As a graduate student, she was fortunate to have been mentored by Dr. William Boisvert, professor of Medicine at JABSOM’s Center for Cardiovascular Research.

“​​He is also a great mentor with a team of outstanding graduate students and postdocs. The cutting-edge technology in his lab provided the tools required to conduct the proposed project. Not to mention that the JABSOM campus is one of the most beautiful college campuses in the world with state-of-the-art facilities and excellent support staff,” Campbell said. “Dr. Boisvert, along with my committee chair Dr. Beatriz Rodriguez and the great team that I work with in the lab are like family!

After graduation, she plans to publish the results from her PhD research and obtain a post-doctoral position. Her long-term goals include obtaining a tenure track teaching position at a university as well as writing more and creating art. Eventually, she hopes to start a center of excellence for health education and training that targets students and scholars in the early stages of career development in science and medicine.

Outside of academics, Campbell enjoys spending time with her husband, an emergency medicine physician, and their Maremma Sheepdogs. She also enjoys scuba diving, painting, traveling, gardening and writing. In fact, she co-wrote her first fact-based fiction and suspense novel, “The Boys in the Water,” in April 2021.

Although Campbell looks forward to what’s next, she will miss the environment that JABSOM provided and leaves incoming graduate students with the following advice: “Your colleagues will become like your family so choose wisely the lab you join and the mentor who will guide you. Be sure to keep a “can do” attitude, pursue what you love to do, and do what you love!”