Fascinated by bugs, plants, and animals as a child, Master of Biological Sciences student Kanut Laoharawee would crush leaves in his hands simply to see them crumble and to extract their oil. He loved deconstructing things, discovering what would happen when they were broken down.
This curiosity stems from an admiration for "the beauty of nature.” He adds, “People love architecture, the design of buildings. I love the design in biology."
Born in Bangkok, Thailand, Laoharawee earned his undergraduate degree in clinical lab sciences. After graduating, he worked for 10 years selling and marketing medical lab equipment in order to earn enough money to attend graduate school.
Finally, in spring of 2013, Laoharawee enrolled at the University of Minnesota. By his own admission, Laoharawee is not the smartest or most ambitious student in the classroom, but he is determined. Like saving money for school, he worked hard to overcome the language barrier. Most of his free time was spent studying and watching additional biology lectures online to round out his understanding of terminology. “You can’t just say you don’t get it, not if you want to be a good student. If you don't understand, read more. Go online."
Fortunately, he found the atmosphere and professors at the U friendly and open. His study groups provided a supportive community that helped solidify his grasp of the subject matter, and he made friends from all over the world who deepened his appreciation of other cultures.
Over the past two years, Laoharawee has studied with Professor R. Scott McIvor, whom he connected with through his academic adviser, Brad Fruen. Kanut’s research in McIvor's lab focuses on Hunter syndrome, an inherited condition caused by a lack of the enzyme iduronate-2-sulfatase, or IDS. Without this enzyme, sugar molecules build up in the body, causing tissue damage. It first appears during the toddler years, and most sufferers die by age 20. The affected gene is on the X chromosome, and therefore, it is most commonly found in boys.
"With our treatment, I hope we can not only improve their quality of life but prolong it."
"There are so many people in my life who have been affected by disease, from cancer to viral infections," he says. "If I could do something to help people, to keep them alive—not just family and friends, but anyone—that would be great."
"Our project focuses on trying to correct the gene using a viral vector,” he explains, “which is basically like a delivery guy bringing you a pizza because your oven doesn't work. The vector delivers a functioning gene into a body with a nonfunctioning gene, which then creates the missing protein and spreads it to other cells, making them healthy."
When they’ve performed this experiment in the brain tissues of mice, he continues, they discovered that not only were the treated mice not affected by certain neurodeficiencies, they performed better on functioning tests than the affected mice who were not treated with the gene.
"Since there is no cure for Hunter syndrome, the only treatment available now is enzyme replacement therapy, which only manages the disease, it doesn't slow it down. With our treatment, I hope we can not only improve their quality of life but prolong it."
While bringing this therapy to people is still far away, it is promising enough to fortify Laoharawee's motivation and enthusiasm.
"I learned something from my mom when I was very young," he says. "One day I told her I placed second in the class, and I asked her, so what do I get as a gift? And she said, ‘I can't give you a gift that will make you happy. The gift that you get is your knowledge.’"
Laoharawee will continue to apply his gift of knowledge this fall when he enters the PhD program at the College of Biological Sciences (Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology and Genetics).
Tips for Future Students
“Dedication is the most important part of completing your degree. Be punctual! And find time to relax. When I got stressed, I would start cooking or baking, and the break would clear my mind. If I needed a longer distraction, I would take a bike ride, maybe 10−15 miles at a time. It makes you focus on overcoming your fatigue and opens space in your brain."