Houston teens take research projects to international contests

The school year is winding down rapidly, but two Houston County seniors still have a lot of traveling to do before they walk across the stage at the end of this month.

Shireen Dhir, 18, of Houston County High and Johnny Fells III, 18, of Northside High have international science competitions to attend while they also wrap up final exams and prepare for graduation. But the pace is something both of them say they’re used to.

Dhir is at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Reno, Nev., which runs through Friday. Her project, “Genetic Transformation of a Biomass Energy Plant Arundo Donax,” looks at how the roots of the giant reed plant can accumulate toxic metals in the soil.

Fells will be at the sanofi-aventis International BioGENEius Challenge competition in Atlanta, which runs May 17-19. His project, “Anti-Cancer Activity of Scutellaria on Aht/PKB Signaling,” compares two different types of plant extracts and how they can be used to treat cancerous tumors. Fells is using an extract of Ocmulgee Skullcap in his research, comparing it with a similar plant, the Barbed Skullcap, found in China.

Both plants in the projects are found in Georgia. The Ocmulgee Skullcap is a threatened species, Fells said, while the giant reed is a threatening species, Dhir said.

“The giant reed is similar to bamboo in structure and grows a lot around here,” she said. “I travel back and forth to Fort Valley a lot, and I saw the reeds growing off the side of the road. I thought, ‘I can use this.’ ”

The plant grows easily, is notorious as an invasive species and will basically take over most areas where it grows, she said.Her current project grew out of a previous one in which she explored using the plant stevia.

“Stevia is a natural sweetener, not manufactured like other sweeteners. It’s low-calorie and a diabetic-safe sweetener — dentists use it — and I intend on pursuing the research,” she said. “It was ‘the project’ for a few years, and it affected me personally with my grandmother suffering from diabetes.”

This time around, Dhir is focused on working with plants to take toxic metals from the ground. She’s applying her knowledge of the tissue culture method using an artificial gel to regenerate plants and clone them in the laboratory.

“I want the baby plants to be like the original ones,” she said. “Giant reeds are accumulators, with a sturdy root system that takes metals from the soil. It’s environmentally friendly and a cost-effective way of cleaning up soil.”

The giant reed has the potential to be modified so its roots can remove metals such as mercury, arsenic, phosphorus and lead from contaminated ground, she said. “I try to figure out new methods so we can manipulate genes in an effective way. My goal is to direct the plant to a desired result.”

She has worked many hours in the lab with Steve Stice at the University of Georgia, she said. Stice is a nationally known researcher with cloning and stem cells.

Fells said his project is a continuation of previous research he’s done on producing plants in a cost-effective way to benefit medical research without putting a stress on the natural plant population. He had worked with the Water Hyssop plant. The extract from it is used to treat Alzheimer’s patients. He said he was attracted to the project because of an aunt who had the condition. He’s been working two years with skullcap with Nimal Joshee at Fort Valley State University, who specializes in plant research, Fells said.

He used a tissue culture, stored the seeds in a gel and froze it, then put them in the field. It’s a tedious process.

“I had to culture two plants, the Chinese Barbed Skullcap and the Ocmulgee Skullcap, shipped them to Mississippi to take the leaf extracts, and they shipped them to Detroit to purify the extracts and then they came back to us at Fort Valley State,” Fells said. “The first year the extract showed promise, with the ocmulgee skullcap being more effective than the barbed skullcap in inhibiting the growth of cancer cells.

“It’s not a cure but that’s the next step. It will take years.”

Keep in mind that these are high school students, teenagers who are already experienced in cancer and genetic research. Both of them plan to continue research as they attend college next year.

Dhir will be attending the University of Georgia with an eye to study biomedical engineering, while Fells will travel north to attend Columbia University, where he plans to study immunology, get a background in medicine, stay in research and study oncology, the branch of science that deals with tumors and the treatment of cancer.