Macon student’s anti-cancer plant research drawing national attention

Tejas Athni likes to keep busy.

Amid a full course load of Advanced Placement classes, the Stratford Academy junior runs his own online magazine, Publizette, and he teaches CPR and basic life support as a certified instructor and through his nonprofit CPR Education. He also started his school’s pre-med club, Health Occupation Students of America.

Now, the 16-year-old can add “neuroscience research prize finalist” to his already impressive resume. He is one of just 15 high school students across the country in the running in a American Academy of Neurology contest.

The top four students, who will be notified in January, will get to present their research at an annual conference in Boston in the spring. Each one will receive $1,000 and airfare, hotel lodging and a daily stipend to attend the conference.

Athni said he has always been interested in science and biology, and he hopes to major in biomedical engineering or another science-related field in college.

“Tejas is an outstanding student,” said Susan Hanberry Martin, who teaches middle school science and upper school environmental design at Stratford. She has taught Athni reading, science and environmental design and coached him in quiz bowl in middle school. “He’s very curious. He always wants to know more. He’s really interested in lots of different things, not just science. He’s just a really good kid.”

Athni decided to pursue a research project after his seventh-grade plant biology class with Martin, who encouraged him to think outside the classroom. During school breaks for his eighth-grade year, he was able to observe lab work happening at Fort Valley State University’s Department of Plant Biotechnology. He got to know Nirmal Joshee, an associate professor of plant biotechnology, and was invited to come back to work on projects.

That department has a long history of mentoring high school students and allows teens to work with faculty and graduate students on a portion of long-term research projects, Joshee said.

The summer before 10th grade, Athni did a plant reproductive biology study, which looked at the reproductive barriers of two medicinal plant species in Georgia. He submitted his research paper and was selected to present as a state finalist at the Georgia Junior Science and Humanities Symposium.

With guidance from Fort Valley, Athni continued his research from a different perspective this past summer. Joshee specializes in research on plants with anti-tumor properties, and he suggested that the student look at Bacopa monnieri — an herb reported to have anti-cancer properties and positive effects on the central nervous system. Fort Valley is already using the plant for other research, Joshee said.

“He’s very meticulous, he’s very dedicated, and these are two things you need in research. He reads a lot and comes up with a lot of questions,” Joshee said. “He came up with some very good results.”

The first part of the summer, Athni created leaf extract from the plant in the Fort Valley lab. Then, he spent three weeks at the Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit, an affiliate of Wayne State University that collaborates with Fort Valley, working with Prahlad Parajuli.

Athni applied the plant extract to glioblastoma multiforme tumor cells, which the institute already had available in its lab. Glioblastoma tumors, usually highly malignant, have limited treatment options, and several different plants are being tested, Joshee said.

Athni said he discovered that the Bacopa extract inhibited the growth of the glioblastoma brain tumor cells. He submitted his research paper on the findings to the American Academy of Neurology, never expecting to be named a finalist in the national contest.

Martin said her student kept her updated on his project over the past two summers, and his recent findings blew her away.

“It’s pretty impressive, although if there ever was a student who was going to do it, it would be Tejas. He really does want to learn more, do more, and pursues every opportunity to do everything he can,” she said. “I see him on the Nobel Prize stage at some point.”

But Athni isn’t done yet. He plans to continue his research with Bocapa monnieri.

“We don’t know what exact compound is responsible for the phenomenon of the inhibition. So that’s why this summer I’ll be working on identifying this exact compound,” he said. “Once the compound is identified, we can pursue animal trials and eventually human trials. Hopefully in the far future it can be developed into a therapy (method) for GBM.”

Joshee and Athni still keep in touch, and Fort Valley will continue to mentor him if he wishes, Joshee said.

“Next year, he’ll be applying to schools and college, and I think wherever he goes, he can continue with this idea, with our collaboration. Or he can get some ideas in a similar field and work on that.”

Andrea Honaker: 478-744-4382, @TelegraphAndrea