(Photo by Flickr user Mycroyance, used under a Creative Commons license)
Francisco Hernandez isn’t your typical high school student.
The Charter School of Wilmington 11th grader has been researching how to help heal cells that have been damaged by an overload of oxygen. He’s doing it by mutating a protein called Peroxiredoxin 6.
“We put mice in a chamber, bombarded it with oxygen and it died in a couple minutes,” Hernandez said. “But a lot of that protein helped it survive longer.”
It all began last summer when Hernandez was interning at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where a team was researching how certain mutations to the protein played a role in the body.
“We worked on that and basically were able to manipulate a common laboratory technique,” he said. “It’s a very low-cost and effective method of detecting mutations in mice genomes.”
Except one thing — one week into the research, Hernandez’s daily supervisor got sick. He was out the rest of the summer.
“Three days before I ended the program, we heard he passed away,” Hernandez said. “It was so shockingly devastating.”
That means Hernandez and his team, for the most part, did this summer-long research project based on one week’s worth of instruction.
So what’s the real-world application for this research?
“If we can detect the mutations we were implementing into the mouse’s genome, we can then do further experimentation with that protein,” he said. “That would apply to Alzheimer’s, the wound healing process and even the germination of plants.”
However, oddly enough, the protein can trigger some processes that damage cells as well.
Hernandez’s year-long research has just begun to pay off. He was one of three award winners in last month’s Delaware BioGENEius Challenge — a statewide competition for high school students making waves in biotechnology research.
Hernandez was handpicked for the competition by a group of judges who scouted him out at his high school science fair.
“They invited me to be one of their finalists at their awards ceremony,” he said. “I think I’m moving on to the national competition.”
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