Marah Hamdan | Photo courtesy TTUHSC El Paso

Foster School of Medicine Student honored for research on Gallbladder Cancer

Marah Hamdan, a fourth-year medical student at the Foster School of Medicine at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso, has been recognized by two major research organizations for her role in a study of gallbladder cancer.

Hamdan was selected for a Student Research Award for the project, “Gallbladder Adenocarcinoma. The Impact of Tumor Location and Minimally Invasive Surgery on Survival.” She is co-first author of the research, along with Felipe B. Maegwa, M.D., FACS, a clinical associate professor of surgery at the University of Arizona.

According to officials at TTUHSC El Paso, the opportunity to lead a research project – as a student – has helped build a solid foundation for her career.

“It was an important experience – learning the process of conducting meaningful research with real-life implications, from inception to multiple submissions and finally being accepted,” Hamdan said. “I’m excited, as this is my first surgical research presentation at a regional conference. This is a steppingstone, and I look forward to my future in the surgical field.”

The Student Research Award is given by the Southern Section of the American Federation of Medical Research and the Southern Society for Clinical Investigation. Hamdan presented her research at the organizations’ joint Southern Regional Meeting, February  25-27. It was held virtually this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study was recently published in the Journal of Gastrointestinal Surgery (PDF download).

The gallbladder is a small organ under the liver that assists with the digestive process. Gallbladder cancer is a rare but very deadly disease: About 3,700 people are diagnosed and 2,000 die from the disease annually in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The disease is difficult to detect in its early stages, when patients may have a better chance of recovering, and it seems to be more common among women, Black people, Native Americans and Alaska Natives.

The study by Hamdan’s research group has helped add to the body of knowledge of gallbladder cancer by examining how the location of tumors on the organ, as well as the use of minimally invasive surgery, affects patient survival rates.

Hamdan’s team analyzed six years of data from gallbladder cancer patients archived in the American College of Surgeon’s National Cancer Database. They found that when tumors emerged on the abdominal side of the organ, the disease was more likely to be diagnosed earlier, resulting in better outcomes for patients. However, if a tumor grew on the liver side – or both sides – of the gallbladder, it was associated with worse outcomes for patients.

The group also examined the use of minimally invasive surgery – such as robotic and laparoscopic surgery – on gallbladder cancer patients in the U.S. from 2010 to 2016. They found that the use of minimally invasive surgery for gallbladder cancer is increasing and appears to help reduce hospitalization times for patients whose tumors are caught early.

“It’s been a great lesson, in both mentorship and research,” said Hamdan, who is scheduled to graduate this year. Her mentor for the project is Ioannis Konstantinidis, M.D., an assistant professor of complex surgical oncology and general oncology at TTUHSC El Paso.

“As the first person in my family entering the medical field, I saw the importance of having a mentor who has a genuine interest in your success and whom I can ask questions pertaining to professional and personal directions,” Hamdan said.

As knowledge on gallbladder cancer has evolved over the past decades, the team’s research adds valuable data on the prognostic importance of tumor location within the gallbladder as well as the safety of minimally invasive surgery for gallbladder cancer, Dr. Konstantinidis said.

“As a faculty member, it is a pleasure and an honor to work with medical students, and I consider it very important for them to have opportunities to present at a national level and learn how to conduct and publish clinical research,” Dr. Konstantinidis said.

Hamdan moved to the U.S. from Saudi Arabia at age 14 in 2010 and considers El Paso her hometown. Now nearing completion of her medical degree at the Foster School of Medicine, she is pursuing a general surgery residency with a goal of becoming a colorectal surgeon. She hopes she can someday make a difference in the place she calls home.

“There’s a need for female colorectal surgeons, especially in El Paso, where I would like to serve the community,” Hamdan said.