On cancer's cutting edge: GPS student researching cure for pancreatic cancer

On cancer's cutting edge: GPS student researching cure for pancreatic cancer

December 24th, 2013 by Casey Phillips in Life Entertainment

GPS junior Anjali Chandra, photographed in a chemistry lab at her school, presented results of her experiments about pancreatic cancer to an international medical conference in Miami in November.

Photo by John Rawlston/Times Free Press.

IN HER OWN WORDS

"One of the immune proteins I was looking at was Interleukin-1 and seeing how it mediates the activity of NF-kB (Nuclear Factor kappaB), which is one of the central pro-survival transcription factors in all cells. In cancer, it gets deregulated, so it's constantly working at a high level. IL-1 has seemed to be one of the things that causes that high activity. I was increasing and blocking IL-1 to see if NF-kB activity would go down." - Anjali Chandra

Like many scientists discussing their work, Anjali Chandra can rattle off a stream of technical terminology that could give ancient Greek a run for its money in sheer incomprehensibility to the layperson.

Unlike many scientists, however, she's still in high school. Only 16, the Girls Preparatory School junior has already contributed to research into the underlying causes and potential treatments of pancreatic cancer, one of the deadliest forms of cancer with a 4 percent survival rate five years after diagnosis.

"I'm one of those people who doesn't like to press the 'I believe' button and look at the surface of things," Anjali says. "I really want to know how it works, inside and out."

This July, Anjali traveled to the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis, where she conducted experiments studying how the interaction of two cellular proteins -- Interleukin-1 and Nuclear Factor-Kappa B -- contributes to the spread of pancreatic cancer.

During her internship at UM, Anjali worked alongside doctoral candidates of assistant professor Dr. Sulagna Banerjee. In November, she presented the results of her work at the American Pancreatic Association's annual meeting in Miami, where

she was awarded a certificate as the youngest investigator in the organization's 44-year history.

"I was surprised because there were doctoral candidates from Northwestern (University) who came and stopped by at my booth and were asking me about my project," Anjali says. "Generally, they were saying, 'Wow. You could be on to something.'

"I don't think they knew, at that point, that I was in high school. It was nice to be treated like a peer and see that the scientific community is so helpful."

And all this work was done alongside her regular schoolwork and her extracurricular activities, which include being editor of GPS's student newspaper, president of her school's chapter of Amnesty International, a member of the Science Olympiad and Model UN teams and principal violist in the GPS/McCallie School Honors Orchestra.

As a junior, Anjali still has more than a year left before entering a university. She has yet to decide on what school to attend or what she will study. Anjali's teachers say they are confident she will excel. whatever her choices.

"There is really no limit to what Anjali can accomplish," says Keith Sanders, her advanced placement chemistry instructor at GPS. "My hope is that she would keep devoting as much passion to what she loves as she does now. That can't help but take her to great places."

Anjali's interest in cancer treatment began in ninth grade, when she was debating what project to pursue for the Chattanooga Regional Science and Engineering Fair. She had two project proposals: one analyzing the link between ingredients in deodorant and birth defects in zebrafish; and a second studying the viability of nanoparticle therapy as a cancer treatment.

She sought advice on which to pursue from Dr. Ethan Carver, a professor of biology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He advised her that a nanoparticle project wasn't feasible, given her time constraints, so she opted for the zebrafish study. As her advisor throughout the project, Carver became Anjali's mentor and describes her as "detail-oriented and methodical," noting that the thoroughness of her initial proposal was enough to convince him to help her.

"She already had a well-conceived plan," he writes in an email. "She had obviously done some prior reading and was well prepared to answer a number of my questions concerning the project. I left the meeting very impressed with her depth of knowledge and enthusiasm."

Anjali's project won the fair's second grand prize but, despite its success, she says she considers the zebrafish study the "simpler idea" of the two, and the siren call of studying cancer lingered.

When it came time to prepare for the 2013 science fair, she designed another project studying the viability of two compounds found in garlic for treating pancreatic cancer. She asked for Carver's help again and, with his guidance, spent several hours after school every day last fall and this spring conducting experiments in the laboratory facilities at UTC. She also traveled to Minneapolis in December to spend a week at UM, where she familiarized herself with the lab techniques that would be required to conduct her experiments.

Her project won third place at the fair, which was held in April, but Anjali says she was intent on digging even deeper into the subject. UM is renowned for its pancreatic cancer research and, because the university was familiar with her work, Anjali reached out last spring to Banerjee, a friend of her father's, to ask for a chance to intern there during the summer.

Although she was many years younger than the other researchers in the lab, Anjali says Banerjee and the students she worked alongside didn't treat her any differently.

"Even when I did my presentation to the lab on what I worked on, many of them treated me like a graduate student and were asking me questions at a level I couldn't understand," she recalls. "I think most of them didn't know I was a high school student. When they asked me where I was going to school and I told them ..., they would be shocked."

An abstract of Anjali's work was published in Pancreas, the monthly journal of the American Pancreatic Association. She says Banerjee and her students likely will submit a paper about their findings, and she's hopeful that her work will be cited. Even her parents, sleep physicians Anuj Chandra and Lotika Pandit-Chandra, haven't been fully published, and the prospect of beating them to the academic punch is enough to make her beam.

"That would be amazing," she says, smiling. "That would make me feel really proud."

Work continues on the pancreatic cancer study in which Anjali was involved, and Banerjee invited Anjali back to continue her work during a summer-long internship, but she hasn't yet decided whether to return. Instead, she says she is interested in working on a project during a family trip to India to translate American medical procedures that could help reduce infant mortality rates in that country's maternity clinics.

Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.