When research gets personal

A research project being conducted by Marquette student Joceline Helmbreck holds a strong connection to her late sister

By Jill Nuelle, communication intern in the Office of Marketing and Communication

Joceline Helmbreck, left, with her sister Jessie. Joceline, now a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences, is doing research on a protein that can contribute to Ewing’s Sarcoma, the form of cancer Jessie died from in 2016.

Last year when Joceline Helmbreck discovered she had been selected for the Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program, which prepares low-income, first-generation and historically underrepresented students across the country for graduate school, her mind ran wild with what she wanted to research.  

Little did she know, the project that would eventually manifest would hold such a special, personal connection to her sister who sadly passed away almost six years ago.

As part of the program, McNair students participate in paid research internships, and through the application process, students must select a professor with whom they would like the opportunity to work.  

Joceline, now a sophomore in the Klingler College of Arts and Sciences, came across Dr. Nicholas Reiter, assistant professor of biochemistry. She says she felt an instant academic connection and overwhelming inspiration when she learned Reiter’s current research involves the LSD1 protein.  

The LSD1 protein happens to be protein that, when made in improper quantities in the human body, can influence the formation of various cancers, including Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare form of pediatric bone cancer — the cancer Joceline’s older sister Jessie died from in 2016. Jessie, who lost her battle with the disease at 16, had been diagnosed when she was just three years old. At the time, Joceline was just two. 

Only 13 months apart, Joceline and Jessie were naturally very close. Looking back, Joceline tearfully admits she doesn’t know or remember a life without cancer and thinks about all of the memories that could have been made had there been a cure or better medication available for Jessie.  

So, when Joceline realized she could research the protein responsible for Ewing’s Sarcoma, she knew she had to go for it.  

Joceline worked with Reiter to develop a research plan. Their research focuses on a newly FDA-approved treatment for Ewing’s Sarcoma, a drug called Seclidemstat.  

The drug is designed to target and inhibit the function of the LSD1 protein to help prevent tumor growth. Joceline and Reiter’s study aims to observe how the drug works in hopes of improving the drug’s efficacy in treating Ewing’s Sarcoma. Until recently, patients did not have a specialized drug to treat the causes of their disease; instead, they relied on intense therapies and surgeries. 

Joceline says she is immensely grateful for the mentorship she has received from Reiter. She describes him as compassionate and caring.  

“He is extremely, extremely enthusiastic about science,” Joceline adds. “Which is just fantastic to see in a mentor because it gets you excited to get to work and learn too.” 

Joceline says the research and the support she has received from Reiter, her family, friends and classmates serves as great motivation in her quest to create better outcomes for patients diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma and keep her sister’s beautiful memory alive. 

“It would mean the world to me if I was able to get data that could lead to a clinical trial and eventually lead to a lot of good for other kids,” Joceline says. “It would just be incredible.” 

“It would mean the world to me if I was able to get data that could lead to a clinical trial and eventually lead to a lot of good for other kids.”

Joceline Helmbreck

Joceline describes Jessie as the “sassy fashionista” of the family, who truly rounded out the family dynamic with Jenna, the eldest sister, as the athlete, and Joceline, the youngest, as the bookworm.  

Another thing that keeps Joceline going is remembering her sister’s unique sense of humor, which often included Jessie — who had her right leg amputated from the knee down — throwing around her prosthetic leg during usual sisterly bickering. And although their relationship was burdened by cancer, the girls were still able to connect in all the wonderful ways that sisters do. 

Joceline says she also hopes her research can shine a light on the importance of pediatric cancer research overall, as only 4% of all government funds for cancer research are allocated toward pediatric cancer.  

Joceline’s research is not the only connection between Jessie’s journey and Marquette, though.  

Joceline recently discovered that one of the nurses who cared for Jessie at Children’s Wisconsin – Milwaukee Hospital, Dr. Amy Newman, now works as an assistant professor in the College of Nursing. 

In addition, one of Jessie’s good friends from Camp One Step — a camp for kids with cancer that Jessie attended and loved very much — is a student in the College of Nursing.  

The unexpected connections between her school and her beloved sister are incredibly special to Joceline — as is a Shakespeare quote Jessie had printed on her hospital room wall: “Though she but little, she is fierce.”  

Joceline says the quote helps her focus on her research and how it could help others not lose their sisters.