Local science fair winners take on medical challenges

Both grand champions of the 2017 Virginia Piedmont Regional Science Fair were motivated by the loss of someone close to them to find new treatments for deadly medical conditions.

Albemarle High School’s Mriganka Mandal and Meg Richey, of Western Albemarle High School also received multiple awards from sponsors of the competition.

“Meg and Mriganka are finding solutions for real-world problems,” said science fair director Adrian Felts. “I think that’s what resonated with our judges the most.”

Mandal, a sophomore, has been doing research in the University of Virginia’s cell biology labs for several years. She said that her grandfather’s death from prostate cancer was one reason she chose to specialize in cancer research.

Mandal’s first experiments aimed to identify chemical compounds in vegetables that could be useful for fighting cancer. However, she soon realized that this would be a daunting task.

“Isolating a specific compound can take years and years,” Mandal said. “I decided to target something that had already been found.”

Mandal’s science fair entry this year focused on SAS1B, a protein typically found only on the surface of a small group of growing egg cells in the ovaries. In 2015, two UVa scientists — Eusibio Pires and the late John C. Herr — discovered that SAS1B also was present on the surface of some cancer cells.

Mandal’s research in Herr’s laboratory proved that SAS1B was present in lung adenocarcinoma, one of the most common forms of lung cancer.

“I had to do a little guessing to make this discovery,” Mandal said. “I tested that hypothesis, and it worked.”

The discovery of SAS1B on cancer cells could enable highly targeted deliveries of cancer drugs using antibodies that would bind only to this protein. In theory, these treatments would not have the side effects of traditional chemotherapy.

Mandal also found in her experiments that targeting SAS1B with antibody drug conjugates led to the death of lung adenocarcinoma cancer cells.

Mandal said she would like to pursue a career in cell biology, using her knowledge of cancer as a “jumping-off point” for exploring other areas of medical research.

Richey, a junior, developed a prototype of a “smart” sensor-equipped orthotic shoe insert for preventing diabetic ulcers.

Diabetes can cause some people to have reduced feeling in their feet. This allows open sores, or ulcers, to form, unnoticed, and become infected. Patients sometimes must have their legs amputated in risky surgeries if the infection is not treated quickly.

“When you think of diabetes, you probably think of blood sugar and insulin shots — not these ulcers,” said Richey. “But they can be very dangerous.”

Richey’s former school bus driver, Michael Morris, died of complications from a diabetic amputation in 2015. She named her invention “The Morris Orthotic” in his honor.

“Mike was a phenomenal person,” Richey said. “He made students feel important and special.”

Some diabetics wear orthotic foam inserts in their shoes that can help prevent ulcers by distributing pressure evenly across the foot. For her science fair project, Richey experimented with technology to make these inserts even more effective.

Richey put small sensors on an orthotic insert to detect differences in pressure caused by growing ulcers. She simulated ulcers of her own with Post-It notes on the soles of her feet and recorded the changing pressure data with a tiny piece of computer hardware clipped to the outside of her shoe.

The higher pressure that could signal a potential ulcer was clearly visible in charts that Richey presented at the science fair.

Richey said she has received a provisional patent for the Morris Orthotic. The electronic components of her prototype cost about $70, but she believes that a mass-produced version with custom-made parts would cost less.

A 2014 article in the journal Diabetes Care estimated that diabetic ulcers resulted in $9 billion to $13 billion in health care costs for Americans each year.

“Insurance companies would have an incentive to subsidize this device,” Richey said.

Richey hopes to eventually develop a mobile app that would interpret data from the Morris Orthotic and alert the wearer if a pressure point or an ulcer was starting to form.

Richey’s work on diabetic orthotics recently helped her win a $10,000 scholarship in a national contest for young women in science, sponsored by the movie “Hidden Figures.” She said that she plans to study computer science and business in college.

Felts said this year’s Virginia Piedmont Regional Science Fair was the first in many years with two female grand champions. He said that boys have significantly outnumbered girls at the science fair in his 10 years as director.

“I hope that having two women win this year will inspire more girls to work on science fair projects in the future,” Felts said.

Mandal, Richey and other winners of the regional fair will compete in the Virginia State Science & Engineering Fair in Lexington on March 24 and 25. Mandal and Richey already have qualified for the Intel Science and Engineering Fair, an international competition held in Los Angeles in May.