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When Lauren Nettenstrom talks about her thyroid cancer treatment, nearly 13 years after she was first diagnosed, she analyzes it with the mind of scientist.
She explains how only thyroid cells uptake iodine, and she can say the exact imaging and treatment dose, in milliCuries, of radioactive iodine she received. She wants to understand how the replacement thyroid hormones she needs to take daily are working – and to understand when her body is signaling that the dose is off.
“I can go into the hormone signaling pathways and why it works,” Nettenstrom said, only half joking.
While she approached her cancer diagnosis and treatment with the same logic and understanding, naturally she also responded to the emotional and physical aspects of having cancer – both the first time, and then again at the time of her recurrence six years later. For example, though her medication dose is correct now, it took nearly a year for her and her doctors to find the right levels.
"They start you on a dose, then you have to wait six to eight weeks for that to stabilize in your system, then you get a blood test and adjust from there. My dose was way too low, but they don’t want to start you out too high and there’s no way to predict because everyone's different,” Nettenstrom said. “Everything was just slow, like my hands weren’t doing what my brain wanted them to, I was sleeping 16 hours a day, and waiting to have the dose adjusted."
A graduate student in UW’s Cancer Biology program at the time, Nettenstrom left the program and earned a Masters degree, not the doctorate for which she planned. She says she initially felt bad, but now she thinks, “I got a Masters and survived cancer!"
Her time in the lab propelled her to a full-time research position in the pediatric immunology lab of UW Carbone Cancer Center member Christine Seroogy, MD. Over the next nearly nine years, Nettenstrom became an expert in flow cytometry, a lab technique in which cells are fluorescently tagged based on what proteins they contain and then analyzed.
"We can take a bunch of cells in liquid, one cell at a time, and put them through a flow cytometry machine: the flow part is fluidics, and cytometry is the analysis of a cell," Nettenstrom said. “And we can evaluate single cells based on what markers are expressed on the surface or what is inside of them."
Today, Nettenstrom is a research specialist in UW Carbone's Flow Cytometry core, a central facility that houses equipment that Cancer Center member labs can use for their research.
"We see so many things come through our lab, from the early development of ideas all the way through clinical trials," Nettenstrom said. “I’m no longer the expert on any one research project, but to see all of these ideas and to partner with Cancer Center researchers and local industry researchers, and getting to help them figure out how to answer their research questions – that’s one of the best parts of working here."
For example, Nettenstrom recently worked with Rupa Pike, PhD, the director of cell manufacturing at UW’s Program for Advanced Cell Therapies, to prepare for a clinical trial looking to reduce complications from bone marrow transplants. Pike must use flow cytometry as a quality control measure to determine if the cells the clinicians are giving back to patients meet the trial’s criteria.
Despite having been part of UW Carbone for the better part of 14 years now – from her graduate studies to her current role – Nettenstrom does not really spend much time thinking of her own cancer diagnosis anymore.
"I'm doing well now, and I'm busy thinking about other things. Will there be more challenges? Of course,” Nettenstrom said. "But I get to help these researchers do their best science, and I get to help in such a positive way. It is such a privilege."