By Brittany Basco
Zachary Fitzpatrick, graduating senior and recipient of the prestigious Gates Cambridge Scholarship, is living proof that one is never too young to make history.
After months of waiting, last week it was announced that Fitzpatrick would be one of only 95 students worldwide to bring home the scholarship — and the first LSU student to do so. The prize: a full-cost scholarship to England’s University of Cambridge for a postgraduate degree in the field of his choice. Fitzpatrick plans to pursue a Master of Philosophy degree in clinical science with a focus in rare diseases.
“It’s such an immense honor to join the Gates Cambridge community,” Fitzpatrick told LSU Press. “I know that this extraordinary opportunity will prepare me to make contributions to rare diseases research, which still has substantial unmet medical needs. The U.K. and the University of Cambridge are at the forefront of innovation in rare diseases and genetic research, and I greatly look forward to learning from pioneering investigators in the field.”
Fitzpatrick came to LSU’s Ogden Honors College as a biochemistry major with minors in political science and chemistry. Before the end of his first year he was splitting his time between classes, a research lab at Pennington Biomedical Research Center, and working alongside a chronic pain physician at The Feldman Institute. Already, Fitzpatrick began to realize the limitations of medicine and the power of science to overcome barriers in the medical disciplines.
“The predominant treatments for chronic pain are narcotics and spine surgeries, which are less-than-ideal therapeutic options, often causing further problems down the road,” Fitzpatrick said. “My exposure at Pennington, studying Parkinson’s disease in Dr. Jolene Zheng’s lab, opened my eyes to the prospect of science in advancing medical practices.”
Through the HHMI LSU Investigators Program, he was able to investigate rare genetic diseases at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia during the summer and fall of 2012, specifically hemophilia and Leber’s congenital amaurosis (a congenital blindness disorder). This was his first opportunity to study rare diseases and it opened his eyes to the public health burden and unmet medical needs of such conditions.
“There are over 30 million individuals in the US suffering from rare disorders, which are mostly genetic in origin and typically neglected in the research and medical sectors,” Fitzpatrick said.
He loved the program so much that he took off his next semester at LSU to continue his studies in Philadelphia, discovering an interest in researching rare diseases therapies, or orphan drugs, such as gene therapies.
“Gene therapy is a really innovative approach to treating and even, perhaps, curing debilitating genetic diseases. Essentially, you use safe viruses, such as adeno-associated virus (which is known to cause no disease) and gut them of their genome, replacing it with a gene of interest. This approach harnesses the ability of viruses to efficiently transfer genetic information, with the goal of replacing a defective gene with a healthy copy.”
Since then, Fitzpatrick has been exploring ways to overcome immunological barriers to gene delivery under the supervision of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School doctors.
“I really love research because I like to solve problems. From exposure in medicine, I saw all of these problems, and in my eyes, it’s just unacceptable,” Fitzpatrick said. “I had the opportunity to work with numerous investigators in biomedicine who are really pushing the boundaries of medicine, and I was encouraged to do the same. I feel there is also a sense of obligation aside from pure passion.”