For the first time since 2012, a Loudoun County student has been named a top 40 finalist of the Regeneron Science Talent Search, the most prestigious math and science competition for high school seniors in the country.
Broad Run High School senior Marissa Sumathipala was recently named a 2018 Regeneron Science Talent Search Finalist, making her one of 40 in the nation. As a finalist selected from 1,800 applicants, Sumathipala has already won $25,000 and will compete to win the $250,000 grand award.
Sumathipala won in the "Talent Search" for her breakthrough heart disease treatment. At 17-years-old, Sumathipala developed a new therapeutic for cardiovascular disease that leads to a 100 percent survival improvement. Sumathipala's therapy uses the latest advancements in epigenetic therapies, a hot area of drug development that modifies the expression of genes to cure diseases.
Sumathipala was partly inspired to research heart disease treatments because of longstanding history of heart disease in her family.
"I really hope that hearing my story could inspire other kids in Loudoun to pursue STEM," Sumathipala said.
Her treatment restores diseased hearts, reduces arrhythmias, improves contractility and revives damaged heart muscles. The therapeutic also treats diabetes and reduces glycemia. Sumathipala developed the therapy through three years of research at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
"The traditional therapeutics for heart disease just look at targeting one of its components like, for example, treating high cholesterol with certain drugs. But the thing is, all these different components of heart disease — diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, arrhythmias — they're all connected by these underlying interactions in your cells," Sumanthipala said. "My research is a paradigm shift, actually, because it is targeting the disease in a new way, targeting the shared interactions at a cellular level in order to treat all of the disease components at the same time."
Sumathipala tested her therapeutic on fruit flies and operated on the flies to see the difference between untreated flies and treated flies. She spent a summer learning how to perform this delicate and difficult procedure. While that may sound like a long time, Sumathipala said most scientists take six months to perfect the craft.
She videotaped fruit fly surgeries and found that her dual approach was effective in restoring heart function and preserving heart structure. She said she could see a clear difference between the fly that received the treatment and the fly that did not.
"Even more than that, because I designed my therapeutic to also treat the metabolic side of heart disease, I was able to treat high glucose levels, preserve muscle function and reduce high lipid levels," Sumathipala said.
The local student hopes her technique will one day reach patients and cure heart disease for millions of patients. Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death, claiming one in three lives, and affects 400 million people worldwide.
"I'm really excited about the potential of my promising research to be able to solve heart disease," Sumathipala said.
Sumathipala said she fell in love with scientific research while in Mario Saavedra's eighth-grade class. In addition to her three-year heart disease research, she also conducted research on neuroscience at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Janelia Campus, computational biology research at Harvard Medical School through the summer Research Science Institute program and genetic engineering research.
She also founded and led Loudoun County's first International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) team, competing the world's premier genetic engineering competition. For two years, Sumathipala led her team research to engineer yeast to treat industrial wastewater. Their work received international recognition, and they were the only U.S. team to win top awards both years.
In addition to her breadth of research, she is also a two time Virginia State Science and Engineering Fair Grand Prize winner.
Sumathipala said she is especially thankful for the support of her mentor at Johns Hopkins, Dr. Anna Blice-Baum, as well as the lab's PI, Dr. Cammarato and Meera Viswanathan, for giving her the chance to pursue her passion for research. She also gave a nod to Broad Run's Terrence Vale, who was a researcher himself at the National Institute of Health.
Sumathipala was accepted early into Harvard University and is waiting to hear back from Yale, Stanford, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton and the California Institute of Technology. In college and beyond, the Broad Run student plans to continue her biomedical research and hopes to become an M.D. Ph.D, combining research and clinical practice to develop new drugs for patients.
"I think that the success of my research has really bolstered this aspiration of mine," Sumathipala said.
In March, Sumathipala will spend a week in Washington D.C. for judging, a public exhibition of her research and a number of presentations to the public, leaders in the science community and members of Congress. While there, she will compete for more than $1.4 million in scholarship awards, with the largest single award being the $250,000 grand award.
Regeneron Science Talent Search finalists are selected based on upon their scientific research and their potential to become world-changing scientific leaders. Alumni have gone on to win the Nobel Prize, found top science-based companies and invent groundbreaking new medical treatments.