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working to cure cancer in the high school science lab

KC Star – Karen Ridder

For Renny Ma, a normal day in high school includes working to cure cancer — or at least a more natural way to treat it.

She is one of three high school seniors from Johnson County who headed to an international science competition this month in Phoenix. Each won the spot to go as a grand prize winner competing against nearly 1,200 metrowide students in the 65th Annual Greater Kansas City Science and Engineering Fair.

Ma researched natural cancer treatments. Fellow Shawnee Mission West student Benjamin Deatherage tried to find a way to help researchers solve the problems of degenerative diseases. Blue Valley CAPS program senior Alexis Vance of Leawood built a scaffold on which transplant cartilage could grow.

The three just returned from the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Phoenix where Ma’s project earned a third-place award in the biomedical and health science category and Vance earned a third-place award in material science at the same competition. They were competing against 1,700 students from 75 different countries.

The three students came out of two specialized Johnson County high school biology programs that have offered them the opportunity to use equipment and techniques many scholars do not experience until graduate school or beyond. The bioscience strand at the Blue Valley CAPS program and the biotechnology signature program at Shawnee Mission West were both built with the vision of offering students the opportunity to learn what it means to “do science” instead of just learning about science in a textbook. Students graduating with experience in these programs are able to get jobs in professional labs right out of high school. Many others are able to walk into college with lab expe rience above students several years their senior.

Science fairs are an important part of equation for the high-schoolers. The fairs give them the opportunity to present their work outside the lab, introducing them to what it means to be a part of the scientific community and the scientific conversation.

Ma’s project started when she went to visit her grandmother in China. A relative there brought tea leaves to Ma’s grandmother that were supposed to have healing powers. Ma wondered if it could be true. As a student in the Shawnee Mission West biotechnology signature program, she had access to the technology to help answer that question.

Teacher Brenda Bott connected Ma with University of Kansas Medical Center researchers Shahid Umar and Ishfaq Ahmed. Umar’s research focuses on cancer prevention and the use of natural products as anti-cancer agents with almost negligible side effects. He helped her pick out a plant extract for the study of its anti-cancer effects. She took the plant extract and applied it to colon cancer cells to see what it would do.

It kind of worked: “The results indicate that the extract has the potential to cure cancer, but the extract needs more research,” Ma said.

The plant extract targeted proteins that promote colon cancer initiation and progression. Current chemotherapies tend to target all fast-growing cells in order to get at the cancer cells. That is why people often lose their hair. Using a therapy with a plant extract, like the one Ma studied, could potentially kill the cancer cells and leave the other cells alone.

Umar said he was willing to take on a high school student in the lab because he saw how the research they were doing matched Ma’s question. He also saw the potential in Ma, who he said came into the project ready to work.

“I sincerely believe that the earlier a talent is recognized, the better it is for us to groom him or her to take on bigger challenges later in life,” Umar said.

Benjamin Deatherage is interested in helping cure degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. He has worked in a nursing home as a cook/server for the last year and a half — a high school job that opened his eyes to the effects those kinds of diseases have on the elderly.

“I was interested in my project because I work at a nursing home where I see neurodegenerative diseases all of the time,” Deatherage said.

Deatherage was paired with Mark Fisher in the biochemistry department at the University of Kansas Medical Center. Fisher said Deatherage’s interest was to develop molecular tools for applied biotechnology. In layman’s terms, that means he worked on developing a kind of protein “kit” that would help researchers obtain proteins that cause a host of common degen erative protein folding diseases. He had positive results in building molecular chaperone complexes of what is called a GroEL nanocluster into larger sizes than what nature provides.

Fisher believes mentoring high-schoolers like Deatherage is important because it introduces students to the excitement of science.

“For the advancement of science and biotechnology in the Kansas City area, it is crucial that we have outreach to the area high schools to let local students know that they can do cutting-edge research right here in the Kansas City area,” Fisher said. “We want to avoid exporting our intelligent youth to the coasts and nurture local scientific talent.”

Deatherage said he was comfortable in the lab at the University of Kansas Medical Center from the start.

“I knew the basic principles of all the machines. They told me some graduate students didn’t know how to do what I knew how to do,” Deatherage said.

If these projects seem a little “high level” for high school, they are.

The biotechnology signature program at Shawnee Mission West gives students access to equipment and experiences most people have to wait until graduate school to encounter. Students from the program won all but one of the top prizes at this year’s science fair.

Program director Brenda Bott explains they developed the program to train students to work in real-world professional lab situations. It is good training for the workforce or for college. She is able to place some of her students with jobs right after graduation from West.

“There is a vast need for students to be trained with laboratory skills. Right now, we are in the animal health corridor,” Bott said. “There’s a lot of biotech industry in our area. People working in the lab need lab training, and they can’t find enough workers.”

The program is rigorous — and quite popular. There are about 100 students in the two-year program, which started in 2006. They have a bio safety Level II lab, which means they can work with bacteria and do animal cell cultures on site. Many of the students also connect with researchers in professional labs around the area to do work off-site.

“Most of the things we have in here are not indicative of a high school lab,” Bott said. “Those are the kinds of things I did in graduate school.”

The program is about doing science, rather than reading about science. Bott’s students are working out problems that require reading and writing and math applied to science.

“It’s the difference between giving a book about basketball to someone and telling them to read it and take a test, or handing them a ball and saying, ‘Let’s go play the game,’ ” Bott said.

Bott is quick to point out while Ma and Deatherage earned the high honors in this science fair, other students in the program were winning at other science fairs. Various fairs in the area are targeted at different types of projects. The students who won high honors at the Greater Kan sas City Science and Engineering Fair all did microbiology projects.

Another student, Erin Smith, did a project that developed a non-invasive, low-cost detection system for Parkinson’s disease by tracking facial expressions. She is headed to the National BioGENEius Challenge in San Francisco in June. She will represent the state of Kansas in that competition.

Shannon Moore and Brendan Bollinger also were honored at the Kansas City Science and Engineering Fair with a “Pioneers in Science” award. This was another top award at the fair, but did not win them a trip to the international science fair. The two worked on a way to help identify traumatic brain injuries such as concussions.

There are currently no direct tests to diagnose a concussion, Bollinger explained. He was interested in sports injuries. Moore was interested in traumatic injuries soldiers experience in war zones. They decided to work together.

“Right now, the best way to measure concussions is a test that measures visual and motor skills, but it is subjective,” Bollinger said.

The two theorized that a particular protein would be excreted in the saliva when a person had a traumatic brain injury like a concussion. They were able to collaborate with researchers at MRI Global working with mice with concussions for other research. They took some of the saliva from those mice and tested for their protein. The results?

“We could see there was a difference between samples, but it was well below the curve. So we could not significantly prove the link because mice don’t give a lot of saliva,” Moore said.

In the Blue Valley School District, students can experience a real-life lab situation at the CAPS program. The program is smaller than the Shawnee Mission West program, with space for about 40 students. Students from all Blue Valley district high schools can apply to attend and take either introductory courses or research courses.

The CAPS program is where Blue Valley High School senior Alexis Vance, 18, did her research on building a natural scaffold on which to grow cartilage tissue.

“I designed it to work with cows’ cartilage cells. I will hopefully find a cheap way to grow these scaffolds in a way that could be modeled for human use,” Vance said.

Vance is really interested in tissue engineering. She calls that the “sketchy edge” of science, because she’s interested in building body parts. Maybe one day she will figure out how to create a kidney or a liver for transplant. Her teacher, program director Eric Kessler, explained that biology and engineering are coming together, but it is still kind of futuristic in its conception.

For now, Vance is settling for building the scaffold. She was able to do all of her research and successfully build the scaffold in the lab at the high school center. The space in the CAPS building is set up to accommodate each research student having their own cubby for their projects. In Vance’s, she keeps crab shells, natural sponges and solutions that are “not really safe.” The really dangerous chemicals are kept in a secured cabinet.

“I’m proud of all of this. It shows what I have done. I like it best here at CAPS that I have the freedom and autonomy to do my project and carry it out and be successful,” Vance said.

Vance was first exposed to the CAPS program while still in middle school when she went to a summer science camp.

“I just thought it was so cool. I get to do all this stuff I’m normally not allowed to do in school,” she said.

The CAPS program, like the one at Shawnee Mission West, is designed to help students understand scientific opportunities, Kessler said.

“No one explained this stuff to me when I was their age,” Kessler said. “There was never even a professor in college who reached out to me to explain what I could do with research. We try to teach our students the basics so they can reach out and approach professors to work in the labs. A lot of it is giving them the confidence as a young person that they can do these things.”

Kessler has only in the last few years started taking students to science fairs outside of school, but some previous students have been listed as co-authors on papers in professional scientific journals. Kessler believes it is important for the students to have an opportunity for external validation for their work. For science fairs, students have to prepare a lab notebook, produce a paper and create a poster to explain their project.

“A student gains learning all of those skills. They have to spend an hour getting interviewed by professionals in the field. It isn’t exactly like a scientific conference, but it really motivates the students. They do their best work,” Kessler said.

Vance is the first of the CAPS program students to take the grand prize at the Greater Kansas City Engineering and Science Fair, and her scientific potential is getting recognized in other ways. She is headed to Oklahoma State University in the fall as a W.W. Allen Scholar. The scholarship is worth more than $100,000 and includes international travel and professional development opportunities for her undergraduate studies as well as a full tuition and a housing scholarship to study at the University of Cambridge for her master’s degree.

Students in the CAPS and Shawnee Mission West programs exude confidence, but are quick to point to their teachers and the freedom they have in these programs as the reason they have fallen in love with science.

Part of the appeal is getting to be with other students who are excited about science. Another part of the appeal is getting to be treated like a professional. The standards are high, and the students deliver.

Vance would probably not be involved in science or chemical engineering at all if she had not encountered CAPS, she said.

“It’s a very professional lab,” she said. “I’m respected as a professional when I’m there. They also give me a lot of freedom in what I can do with my project. There’s just something about having more freedom that just inspires creativity.”