February 15, 2018 (Vol. 38, No. 4)

High School Student Named as Finalist for Prestigious Science Award

A senior high school student in Virginia who at the age of 12 wanted to know if pesticides caused multigenerational effects in people has been named one of 40 finalists to compete for a Regeneron Science Talent Search (STS) Award.

Marissa Sumathipala, 17, who attends Broad Run High School in Ashburn, VA, was cited for her project: Reinventing Cardiovascular Disease Therapy: A Novel Dual Therapeutic with FOXO Transcription Factor and AMP Kinase.

“I am elated to have been honored as an STS finalist,” Sumathipala told GEN. “To be a part of this group is an unparalleled honor, one that has not quite sunk in just yet. I am exceptionally grateful to the Society for Science and the Public for their steadfast mission to promote STEM for almost a century, and to Regeneron for their vision in investing in the next generation of scientists and change makers.”

Using a fruit fly model with proteins FOXO and AMPK, Sumathipala began investigating the underlying, molecular causes leading to cardiovascular disease (CVD). These proteins are independently expressed in adipose tissue and striated muscle.

Fly heart surgeries, beating heart analysis, and tissue imaging were performed. FOXO in adipocytes dramatically treated cardiac dysfunction (contractility increased by 140%, arrhythmicity decreased 90%, and heartrate decreased 50%). It also treated hypertrophic heart failure and reduced lipid accumulation. “AMPK in muscle treated hyperglycemia—decreasing glucose by 82% and mitigated skeletal muscle deterioration. FOXO and AMPK increased survival from 50% to 100%,” said Sumathipala. “Most significantly, this study presents FOXO and AMPK as a novel dual therapeutic for not just effectively and holistically treating CVD but preventing it as well.”

Marissa Sumathipala finalist to compete for a Regeneron Science Talent Search (STS) Award.


Beating Heart Video of Fruit Fly with FOXO Therapeutic by Marissa Sumathipala

Trekking with Her Family

Sumathipala became interested in science after trekking in national parks across the U.S. with her family. “It sparked my curiosity and a habit for inquiry,” she says. Her first science research project was “as a 12 year-old, when I wanted to know if pesticides caused multigenerational effects in people. So, I turned my bedroom into a fruit fly laboratory.”

After being named one of the 40 finalists, she said she thought back on the summer of 2015, when she spent her summer learning how to do fruit fly heart surgeries, carefully dissecting the delicate flies and recording their beating hearts under a microscope.

“It was amazing to see the hearts beating before my very eyes; yet, even more rewarding was to see over two years the effects of my therapeutic in improving heart function and increasing survival,”
she recalled.

Sumathipala views the promising results she obtained with the FOXO and AMPK proteins not only in light of treating the cardiac conditions themselves but also in learning to better understand the metabolic components of CVD. She has already started teaching herself bioinformatics to ultimately design a tissue-specific FOXO and AMPK therapeutic.

Sumathipala sees herself as a future biotechnology researcher and innovator, combining her passion for biology with her desire to help people.

“I have long nurtured a vision of being a medical scientist, leveraging core engineering principles to solve contemporary biological and medical problems,” she points out.

Sumathipala has already been accepted into Harvard early action, but she is waiting to hear back from a few other colleges before making a final decision. “My long-term educational goal is to pursue an M.D./Ph.D. program,” she says.

In early January, the Society for Science and the Public and Regeneron announced 300 students named as Scholars. Each Scholar and their school were awarded $2,000.

From that select pool, 40 finalists are then invited to Washington, D.C., in March to undergo final judging, display their work to the public, meet with notable scientists, and compete for $1.8 million in awards. Each finalist will receive a minimum $25,000 award, with a top award of $250,000.

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