Shandra Trantham From patient to researcher

By: Micayla Kinder

Shandra Trantham is a 21 year-old, first-year graduate student in the UF Genetics and Genomics Graduate Program. Trantham, a Jupiter Florida native, is very passionate about her program and excited about her research. Though Trantham is new to the program, she has been interested in genetics since she was a young girl and her goal is to study and find a cure for Friedreich’s Ataxia (FA), a rare neuromuscular disorder.

Trantham’s interest in genetics began when she was about 9 years old and began to have poor coordination and balance. Loss of balance is one of the first signs that usually appears in children who have FA. Trantham was officially diagnosed with the disorder when she was 12 years old, and has known ever since that she was going to make FA research her career.

Friedreich ataxia is a rare inherited genetic disorder that causes progressive movement problems and damage to the nervous system. FA is caused by a defect (mutation) in a gene labeled FXN, which carries the genetic code for a protein called Frataxin. People have two copies of every gene, with one copy being inherited from each parent. A person needs to inherit two copies of the defective FXN gene to develop FA. A person who inherits only one abnormal copy of the gene is called a carrier and is capable of passing on the gene mutation to his or her children. AbnormalFXN genes are carried by about one in 90 Americans.

Trantham received her Bachelor’s Degree from the University of South Florida in Cell & Molecular Biology in 2018. She made the decision to come to the UF Genetics and Genomics Graduate Program because of the extensive research being done here on FA.

“I decided to come to UF because there are research opportunities that are relevant to what I want to do,” Trantham said. “UF is a big place for FA research. They do clinical trials and they’re developing gene therapy. There’s also basic science work too and I really wanted to be a part of that.”

Though Shandra’s condition is rare, even more uncommon are individuals with FA pursuing a PhD in genetics. Trantham said that she knows of only one other person with the disorder who is considering a career in genetics. There is currently no known cure for FA but Trantham along with her colleagues are working hard to see that change.

“There’s no treatment for FA at the moment but there’s a lot of stuff in the pipeline,” Trantham said.

Trantham has participated in several biomarker studies this semester and has been able to take on a new role as a researcher.

Here Shandra is pictured with Dr. Barry Byrne, getting a muscle biopsy for FA research. Trantham has been in Dr. Byrne’s lab this semester which has been a dream come true for her, she said.

“This is the lab that I applied to UF for,” Trantham said. “The experience of being on the other side of drug development has been so cool. I used to only get to hear about these advancements as a patient, but now I get to be a part of the planning and development meetings.”

Trantham’s participation in this kind of research began long before this semester as she has actively pursued FA research and fundraising opportunities since she was young.

“I’ve been a part of three different drug trials since I turned 18,” she said. “I’ve also traveled all over and participated in research conferences and have been able to connect with other people who have FA.”

Trantham has attended FA conferences and fundraisers across the nation and most recently participated in rideATAXIA in Orlando, which aims to raise funds for FA research. This event and ones like it, empower communities and unify families who all have the common goal of finding a cure for the disorder.

Trantham pictured riding tricycle at RideATAXIA in Orlando, Fla.

Trantham said that one of the highlights of her semester was discovering a special bike called a Racerunner that allows people to run without using their body weight. With the help of a local organization called Watch Me Run, Trantham recently acquired a Racerunner of her own. Watch Me Run is an organization founded by 13-year-old Sayers Grooms, that seeks to introduce people of all abilities to the sport of RaceRunning. Grooms has ataxic cerebral palsy, and gained the ability to run by training with the special bike. Watch Me Run introduced Trantham to the sport last semester and has played a huge role in helping her purchase one. Trantham has been dreaming of this moment for months and is excited to run again with the help of her new bike.

Trantham has adjusted well to her program and new home in Gainesville but her semester has not been without challenges.

“Academically, things have been getting better as the semester has gone by,” Trantham said. “It’s been getting easier to tie concepts together from my classes and research. Physically, it is hard to be disabled and doing a PhD program. It’s just a lot of extra effort that people don’t really think about unless they have to deal with it.”

Though it hasn’t been easy, Trantham continues to persevere and prove that she will not let her disability limit her or prevent her from achieving her dreams.

“It’s about focusing on what the outcome is,” Trantham said. “I know that I’m working on my disease so anything that I do to try to help figure out a cure, working on the treatments and everything, is going to be really beneficial in the long run, for all of my friends and for me.”

Along with research opportunities, Trantham said that her experience at UF has been so exceptional because of the UFGI faculty and students.

“The people in Gainesville are really great,” Trantham said. “They each have a story that’s brought them here, and I find those stories so interesting. Hearing them has really enriched my life.”

Trantham celebrated the end of the semester by going to Harry Potter World with some of her friends from her program. She is excited about the future and is looking forward to continuing her research here at UFGI, she said.

  • Sources:
  • NINDS (2018, Dec. 11). Friedreich Ataxia Fact Sheet. Retrieved from https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Fact-Sheets/Friedreichs-Ataxia-Fact-Sheet

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