Dublin teen makes new findings in cancer biology

15 Jan 2016

Shay Walsh, Managing Director BT Ireland and Minister for Education and Skills Jan O'Sullivan present Renuka with her award for Individual Runner-Up at BTYSTE 2016. Photo: Luke Maxwell.

Renuka Chintapalli is making discoveries about the biology of cancer – and she’s still only 16.

She may be studying for her Leaving Cert, but listening to Renuka Chintapalli speak, you could be forgiven for thinking she is a university graduate in cell biology.

Thanks to her understanding of how cells operate, her ability to use bioinformatics tools and her sheer hard work, the 16-year old has discovered a new protein suspect in the biology of oesophageal cancer, and she may have identified a potential way for doctors to find out if that cancer is aggressive.

Cancer project

Last Friday, the fifth-year student at Loreto Secondary School, Balbriggan, scooped two major prizes at the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition (BTYSTE) for her remarkable project – the Royal College of Surgeons Special Award and the Individual Runner-up prize for the entire competition.

“I was so pleased and delighted,” recalls Chintapalli of her name being called out at the awards ceremony in the RDS for her project entitled Developing a predictive tool for identifying FLNc-associated biomarkers of oesophageal cancer metastasis.

Cancer of the oesophagus, the food pipe that runs between mouth and stomach, is now among the top 10 most common cancers worldwide, and oesophageal adenocarcinoma has become the prevalent type in developed countries. For her project, Chintapalli experimented on oesophageal adenocarcinoma cells growing in the lab, and she also used bioinformatics software to figure out more about the molecular conversations that could drive the cancer.

A new suspect

In the wet-lab work on the cells, Chintapalli found that a particular protein, Filamin-C (FLNc), was present in the cancer cells. FLNc is involved in maintaining internal cell structure, but its presence in the cancer cells was something of a surprise. “It is muscle-specific protein, and it is not supposed to be present in these epithelial cells, the cells that line the oesophagus, but I discovered the protein was expressed there,” she says.

Her results also teased out aspects of its biology in the cells, such as where the protein is located and how it gets decorated with phosphate groups that can affect function.

Digging into data

Cancer biology project

Renuka with her project at BTYSTE 2016. Photo: Luke Maxwell.

As well as working with living cells, Chintapalli turned to software tools and online databases of gene expression to search for proteins that could potentially interact with FLNc.

“Nowadays most data – microarray databases, gene and proteins – are freely available online,” she explains. “There is a wealth of information at the click of a button.”

The trick though, is knowing how to analyse the data, and by combing through the information, Chintapalli identified that a protein called Dynactin Subunit 1 could potentially control levels of FLNc.

Potential impacts

Her findings open up the intriguing possibility that measuring Dynactin-1 expression levels in oesophageal adenocarcinoma biopsies might in the future offer doctors a way to predict whether the cancer is spreading, though she notes that remains to be validated.

It’s not the first time Chintapalli has entered the BTYSTE – as a second-year student she won third place in her category for a project that demonstrated anti-bacterial activity in spices, and last year she won the top spot in her category for her finding that raw garlic extract could reduce the growth of cervical cancer (HeLa) cells. The garlic project is being written up as an academic paper and she hopes that the oesophageal cancer work will also be published in the future.

Winning strategies

The day after being announced as a winner in the 2016 BTYSTE, Chintapalli talked about her project for hours, explaining to members of the public at the RDS what her work had involved and uncovered. Next to her were two other pupils from her school – Maria Louise Fufezan and Diana Bura – who won the overall BTYSTE award for looking at the impact of enzymes in animal feed on the tiny soil-dwelling worm C. elegans.

With these and other awards to its name, it hardly surprising that Loreto Secondary School Balbriggan bagged the NAPD award for Best Republic of Ireland School, which teacher Dr Niamh McNally accepted at the ceremony.

Chintapalli credits McNally and the other teachers who supported the participating students in weekly science clubs, and who spent parts of their Christmas holidays mentoring the students as they finished their projects. For her research, Chintapalli also linked in with researchers at St James’s Hospital and Trinity College Dublin.

Know your stuff – and get stuck in

In the run up to the BTYSTE, Chintapalli says she thought about nothing but her project. For future participants, she says that ‘knowing your stuff’ is key – but also that because it is your own work you are best placed to explain it to judges. “Just remember that you did your project and you are the person who knows most about it,” she says.

As well as being a multiple winner at the BTYSTE, Chintapalli is a member of the Digital Youth Council, which looks to give young people in Ireland a voice about STEM. She is working on the Council’s strategy and communication.

And when she leaves school, she is keen to study medicine. “All this experience in science has really inspired me,” she says.

Chintapalli encourages young students, and particularly young women, who have an interest in STEM to take the plunge: “Science is all around us, you can tap into all the information, so don’t be afraid and get stuck in.”

Read all Siliconrepublic.com’s coverage from the BTYSTE 2016 here.

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication