Hunter Hazelwood, a third-year medical student at the University of Kentucky, wants to become a surgeon. He assumed his first hands-on experience with surgical procedures would come during residency, or at least much later in medical school. 

But as early as his first year, he was able to shadow surgical faculty at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine. Soon after that, he found himself in the thick of the action, assisting with clinical research and developing a newfound love for neurosurgery.

Through the Professional Student Mentor Research Program, Hazelwood met Justin Fraser, MD, professor of neurosurgery, and Keith Pennypacker, PhD, professor of neurology with a joint appointment in neuroscience. Drs. Fraser and Pennypacker each have a wealth of knowledge in stroke care and science. Alongside Ann Stowe, PhD, they are co-principal investigators of the Center of Advanced Translational Stroke Science (CATSS), an interdisciplinary team within the Office of Research’s Alliance Research Initiative. 

In his first year of medical school, Hazelwood shadowed Dr. Fraser during thrombectomy procedures that remove harmful blood clots from stroke patients. He had his first opportunity to participate in the collection of blood from stroke and non-stroke patients. He began working closely with Dr. Pennypacker in the analysis of these samples that are stored in UK’s tissue biobank, the Blood and Clot Thrombectomy Registry and Collaboration (BACTRAC). 

Hazelwood completed his first research project between his first and second year of medical school, which led to being a first author on a scientific publication examining the proteomic differences between the arterial blood of stroke patients and non-stroke patients.

As a medical student, and also a Kentuckian, he understood how significant that experience was.

“As you're putting in hours to try to get a paper done, at the end you can look back and say, ‘Wow, this is important,’” he said. “We’re able to do it for the people of Kentucky right here in our backyard. It meant a lot to be involved in something that's hopefully going to have a very large impact on a very critical problem such as stroke.”

Dr. Pennypacker said the “one-of-a-kind” BACTRAC biobank contains tissues from 245 stroke and 103 non-stroke patients. Samples include intracranial blood adjacent to the clot, peripheral blood, and blood clots collected during thrombectomy procedure. Blood from non-stroke patients is collected during angiograms. (For these samples to be used and studied, patients must give consent.) He estimates that about 70% of patients are from Appalachia, where stroke problems are pervasive. BACTRAC has laid the foundation to obtain National Institutes of Health grant funding to expand research and collection capability. This funding will enable following subjects for two years after their stroke to evaluate proteomic blood biomarkers to predict cognitive impairment in developing of vascular dementia. These blood biomarkers will lead to the early identification of patients that will require cognitive rehabilitation.

The biobank has potential to serve as a “nationwide hub” for stroke patient tissues and data. Oregon Health and Science Center is the first institute to obtain NIH funding to collaborate with UK. 

The team’s overarching goal is to analyze all of the molecular composition of the blood. They are building a searchable database examining comorbidities, demographics, and other information of the patients with the corresponding molecular data which will aid to develop a more personalized approach to stroke care and therapeutics. 

With such innovative clinical care and research happening at UK, Hazelwood is thankful to have opportunities for such early, hands-on experience. He remains invigorated by what he can accomplish as a student, and later as a physician with scientific knowledge.  

“I could not have two better mentors,” Hazelwood said of Dr. Fraser and Dr. Pennypacker, noting their quick responses and willingness to answer any question he brings forth. 

Today, Hazelwood remains involved with the team as a paid sample collector, working on call to help UK continue building its biobank and database to promote groundbreaking discoveries in stroke care. 

“Being a collector gives me a unique perspective on the research we're doing,” Hazelwood said. “I'm there when the blood is collected. I process the blood and then use those results in the research I'm doing … having that continuity is important.”