Heart attack therapies can leave patients with an elevated risk of future heart failure, but four California high school students have a solution.
Natalie Ng, Alexander Powers and brothers Nithin and Nikhil Buduma devised a new treatment that uses a microscopic DNA "box" to deliver a restorative protein directly to the damaged heart.
The group's combined efforts – over weekends and school breaks – resulted in a prototype that netted first prize in the 10th-12th grade division of this year's ExploraVision national science competition. First- and second-place winners from each division were honored at an awards banquet in Washington, D.C. over the weekend. Members of the first-place teams each win a savings bond worth $10,000 at maturity.
The solutions developed by the teams are not ready to move from concept to clinical trials – not yet, anyway.
"As we were talking to people here we actually realized this is not that far off," says Ng, an incoming senior at Monta Vista High School in Cupertino, who hopes with further research and development their vision could become a reality.
"In terms of the DNA box, we have staple strands – DNA sequences that theoretically are supposed to form into this structure that we predict," she says. "One of the things we all think would be really cool is if we could try to synthesize it for real."
Sponsored by Toshiba and the National Science Teachers Association, the ExploraVision competition challenges students in grades K-12 to work in teams to mimic real-life research and development.
Science icon Bill Nye, of "Bill Nye the Science Guy" fame, has served as a spokesman for the ExploraVision competition for the past decade.
"Every year they're more sophisticated," Nye says. "These kids do a lot of research and they find the latest thing, and then put it in their invention."
That was the case for the Northern California teens, who were inspired by an experiment they read about.
"My brother and I saw something in the newspaper about using something called VEGF, which is a protein, in mouse models and thought, 'Oh, maybe we can use this in our project,'" said Nithin, a soon-to-be sophomore at Lynbrook High School in San Jose, Calif.
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Second-place winners Ashley Lopez, Emily Pendas and Gabby Clossick, from Our Lady of Lourdes Academy in Miami, also went the medical route with their project. But for this trio, the challenge was personal.
Clossick has scoliosis – a curved spine – so the group designed a device that could correct the curvature using a combination of magnets, drug therapy and electrical impulses.
"Our mentor asked us to figure out a way to straighten a pole," says Pendas, who will be a senior at the academy. "My idea was, if you could put a magnet in the middle of the curve, then it would straighten it out."
If it could work on a pole, it could work on a spine, Pendas theorized.
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The second piece of the puzzle – a combination of drugs administered through a patch of microneedles to relax the muscles and allow the bones to reshape – was Lopez's brainchild.
Combining their individual ideas into one therapy was initially a stumbling block for the teens, she says.
"We didn't think we could put a magnet into something to use a drug, and then use mechanical force on top of all of that," she says.
The process taught the teens that innovation isn't a solitary process. It also isn't solely science, Lopez says.
"It showed us that science isn't always sitting in a classroom learning laws and theorems and stuff," says Lopez. "You have to incorporate a business aspect, as well as designs. We had to work as a team … and come to decisions, and we also had to think of, 'How would this sell?'"
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Teachers can use that lesson to incorporate science into their own classrooms, no matter which subject they teach, Nye says.
"You can use science to teach anything," he says.
"Once you get excited about dinosaurs then you can write about them, and you can do a geography project about the changing land masses on the surface of the earth," says Nye. "If you do space you can do astronomy – Venus compared to the Earth compared to Mars. You can do anything."
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Corrected 6/11/13: A previous version of this post incorrectly identified and attributed Ashley Lopez and Gaby Clossick.