Abney Foundation invests in MUSC physician-scientists who will determine the future of cancer medicine

Melissa Varner
March 19, 2024
Nate Oberholtzer
Nate Oberholtzer

A high school biology teacher sparked Nate Oberholtzer's interest in science. 

"In the intro to biology class, Mr. Myron Blosser taught us how to do some very basic DNA testing. We took samples from plants and even our own spit," Nate said. Through hands-on experiments, Nate explored DNA strands up close – and he was hooked.

"That's really when I started falling in love with science," Nate said.

In his senior year of high school, he took an advanced biology course taught by Blosser. The class also gave students the opportunity to shadow researchers at local universities in Nate's hometown of Harrisonburg, Virginia.

"Once a week, I went over to James Madison University and spent time in the research lab," he said.

After graduating from the University of Virginia, Nate applied to more than a dozen M.D./ Ph.D. programs, including the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC). The combined-degree program is designed for outstanding students who wish to become physician-scientists and pursue research careers in an academic environment. The curriculum typically is completed in seven to eight years.

Nate Oberholtzer, a Ph.D. student at the MUSC College of Graduate Studies, poses on the beach with six members of his multi-generational family. 
Nate at the beach with his grandma, parents and siblings.

During Nate's second year at the MUSC College of Medicine, his grandmother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. "She passed away soon after she was diagnosed because it's such an aggressive and tough cancer to treat," he said. "And it's a cancer where we really don't have any good therapies for it. Knowing that there is a lot more we can do solidified my desire to research cancer." 

Currently, Nate is a Ph.D. student at the MUSC College of Graduate Studies. His focus: the emerging field of cancer immunotherapy. "The new frontier of cancer therapy is going to be in your body's immune system, which fights viruses and bacteria. Immunotherapy helps make the immune system a better cancer fighter."

Most recently, he was part of a clinical trial to test purified CAR-T cells manufactured at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center to see if they would have fewer side effects and longer lasting results than commercial CAR-T-cell therapy. In a Hollings' lab, Nate helped re-engineer a patient's T-cells – part of the immune system – to target and kill cancer. The supercharged CAR-T-cells were then returned to the patient, who is home, and according to his doctor, doing well. 

The life-changing work Nate's doing is supported by The Abney Foundation, located in Anderson, South Carolina. And he's not the only one – Nate is one of 10 Abney Scholars now working in labs at Hollings. 

Now in its 27th year, The Abney Foundation Scholarship Program is the premier cancer research training program at MUSC. Since its inception, the program has awarded scholarships to 180 different researchers-in-training from South Carolina, 27 other American states and 23 countries around the world. These investigators represent the future of cancer research and are playing a leading role in the search for new ways to treat, prevent and ultimately cure the disease.  

Being named an Abney Scholar is an honor, Nate says. "Thank you for supporting my training. Countless cancer patients will benefit from the breakthroughs you've helped make possible through your generosity."