Abilash Prabhakaran works on his research for safer drugs and to reduce chemotherapy side effects.
Cherry Creek High School students Abilash Prabhakaran and Isani Singh will travel to Washington D.C. in March to compete in the Regeneron Science Talent Search, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious science and math competition for high school seniors. They are among 40 Regeneron Finalists selected from 300 Regeneron Scholars and more than 1,800 entrants based on the originality and creativity of their scientific research, as well as their achievement and leadership both inside and outside of the classroom.
Singh is a science competition veteran. She qualified for the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in 2016 and 2017, winning awards in both. Prabhakaran is a relative newcomer, having competed in only one other science competition. Watching his grandmother battle breast cancer initially sparked his interest in scientific research.
“What I noticed was that when she was undergoing chemotherapy, she would get injections in her arm,” said Prabhakaran, who was just 14 years old at the time. “For me, that was really confusing. Teleportation hasn’t been invented yet, so how can a drug injected in the arm make it to the tumor?” he wondered.
Four years later, Prabhakaran has completed an impressive research project titled Selective Transfection Using DiBAC4(3,) which examines better ways to deliver cancer drugs so they more effectively target cancer cells and do less damage to non-cancerous or “innocent” cells.
“One of the biggest problems with chemotherapy is that the drugs can be toxic and kill innocent cells,” Prabhakaran explained. Using nanoparticles and the voltage properties of cancer cells, he discovered a better way to target those cells.
“I found that by adding this molecule known as DiBAC4(3), nanoparticles were able to target cancer cells more effectively,” Prabhakaran said. “It paves the way for more research into how we can develop safer drugs and reduce chemotherapy side effects.”
Singh, on the other hand, is focused on research into a less common medical condition.
“Cancer, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s… All these high-profile disorders get lots of attention, as they should, because a lot of people are affected by them,” Singh said. “But rare diseases tend to be on the back burner for physicians, for research. There’s often no literature.”
So, Singh chose to study a rare genetic condition called Turner Syndrome, which only affects women. Last summer, as a participant in the MIT Research Science Institute, she conducted a study titled Investigating the Developmental Requirements of Sex Chromosome Genes Affected in Turner Syndrome.
“I was working toward confirming that even if a woman has Turner Syndrome, if she has survived, she probably has mosaic Turner Syndrome, which means only some of her cells are affected,” Singh explained.
Her research, which looked at the genes implicated in Turner Syndrome, could help address some of the symptoms of the condition, which include short stature, infertility and cardiac complications.
“There are two ways to help with those things,” Singh said. “One is just early diagnosis, which I think some of my hybridization work can help with, and another is controlling the symptoms, which can be done with some protein replacement for the genes I found that were implicated.”
As Regeneron Scholars, Prabhakaran and Singh each received a $2,000 scholarship and Cherry Creek High School received two $2,000 grants. Both students credit CCHS, the school’s scientific research program and their teachers for helping them develop the scientific inquiry, critical thinking and presentation skills they will need in the next round of competition.
As Regeneron finalists, the two will spend a week in Washington D.C., where they will interact with leading scientists, meet with members of Congress and display their projects to the public at the National Museum of Women in the Arts on March 11. They will also participate in a rigorous judging process and compete for more than $1.8 million in awards. Both students are looking forward to the experience.
“There are rounds of judging, so I think my project is going to be tested in ways it hasn’t in the past and I’m excited to see how that goes,” Singh said.
Prabhakaran and Singh will graduate in May and both have applied to a number of prestigious schools across the country. Surprisingly, Prabhakaran plans to study economics rather than a science-based discipline, while Singh hopes to continue her research while in college.
“Ultimately, I want to be a clinician and a researcher, so I want to pursue and MD/PHD program after I complete my undergraduate degree,” Singh said.
Both students believe that participating in scientific research offers many benefits to both students and society. Singh said research can present many obstacles in terms of identifying the right project, getting lab time and space and finding a professor, a doctor or other researcher to sponsor or supervise your research. Getting results and also be challenging, Singh said.
“I almost gave up my freshman year because research can be so hard,” Singh recalled. “But it was definitely worth the process and I’d recommend it for anyone considering it.”
“I think as a society, when students are given the opportunity to really execute something, really let their creativity run, it really is the most rewarding experience,” Prabhakaran added. “Every student deserves the opportunity and freedom to really get out there in the world and make a difference.”
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