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  • Writer's pictureIsabella Jabbour

The Science Scholars Program: Edgemont Student Researches Pancreatic Cancer

The Science Scholars Program is a two-and-a-half-year course offered to students starting in tenth grade and culminating in their senior year. This elective course allows high school students to explore original, cutting-edge scientific research. Students study and work with professional scientists within their field of interest to learn how to think creatively and bring innovative solutions to today’s scientific problems.

The Science Scholars Program also builds confidence in their ability to do scientific research. On an even larger scale, it can also promote student’s interest in pursuing a STEM career. In Edgemont, students must join the program starting in tenth grade, conduct research, create presentations, and maintain a work portfolio. The program will culminate with students presenting their scientific research work to the Edgemont community at the Science Scholars Symposium.

Mihir Patil, Junior

Mentor: Dr. Ritu Pandey, University of Arizona

Unintentional weight loss. Continued abdominal pain. Persistent jaundice. Three unrelated symptoms, with an insidious onset, are easily mistaken for other illnesses or functional disorders, but present a most devastating diagnosis: incurable stage 4 pancreatic cancer with metastasis to the liver, lung and bones. This is the story of “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek, whose world got turned upside down in early March 2019. Thousands each year join his fate. This year, an estimated 60,430 new cases of pancreatic cancer will be diagnosed and an estimated 48,220 deaths from pancreatic cancer will occur across the nation, according to the American Cancer Society. Trebek did survive longer than many people diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, due to new and innovative immunotherapy treatments, however, twenty months after his diagnosis, Trebek passed away.

Unfortunately, Trebek’s story is not unique; this aggressive cancer continues to impact families all around the world. It is extremely deadly because it is often discovered at advanced stages when abdominal pain and jaundice occur, among other symptoms. During the early stages, when the tumor would be most treatable, there are no symptoms and no general screening tools to help early detection. Therefore, how can we develop novel targeted therapies against pancreatic cancer? How can we better understand the molecular mechanisms or pathways that play a critical role in the development of pancreatic cancers? How can we mitigate this cancer’s impossible burden?

The answer lies in unlocking the molecular mechanisms or pathways that play a critical role in the development of pancreatic cancers. Pancreatic cancer is the third-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States, after lung and colorectal cancers, according to the National Cancer Institute. The survival rate of pancreatic cancer patients is still very low — 8% of patients diagnosed will live five years or longer. Most die within a year. The limitations of diagnosis and treatment options has led to a quest for the development of novel targeted therapies. In turn, advances in our understanding of the critical genes and molecules regulating multiple pathways involved in tumorigenesis will surely increase the specificity of targeted treatments more quickly and accurately.

With his experience in computational techniques, pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC), the most prevalent type of pancreatic cancer, became the focus of Mihir Patil’s research at the University of Arizona. Mihir, a junior in the Science Scholars program, performed numerous computational analyses, which helped his team discover molecular pathways that influence the growth rate or aggressiveness of the tumor. By observing the tumor microenvironment of PDAC, he was able to identify molecular changes that are associated with samples that overexpress or under express CEACAM6, carcinoembryonic cell adhesion molecule 6. The CEACAM6 gene has been shown to be overexpressed in PDAC cells and is associated with poor survival.

In the future, they will look at the importance of how changing the CEACAM6 expression will slow down or halt the spread of the tumor. The following steps for Mihir and his mentor, Dr. Ritu Pandey, are to continue with specific analysis. More interestingly, they want to increase and decrease the expression of the gene to see how that helps or hurts cancer. There are other genes correlated with CEACAM6, that when increased and decreased, this group of genes may make life better for the patients.

“My research was all online, so I did not get the experience of lab work, but I still do feel my research was valuable.”

Mihir met Dr. Pandey through a family connection during his sophomore year prior to the pandemic. Mihir began the Science Scholars program with a keen interest to conduct research in a cancer field and ultimately chose pancreatic cancer because of his interest and ability to find a mentor in this area. Due to the pandemic, Mihir was restricted from conducting his research from home and not in a laboratory. “My research was all online, so I did not get the experience of lab work, but I still do feel my research was valuable.” Regardless of missing the entire in-person experience with his mentor, Mihir still had a great time conducting research, especially since it was his first time. Similarly, he is looking forward to upcoming competitions this year and next year. He plans on attending the Tri-County Fair and the Regeneron Westchester Science and Engineering Fair (WESEF). “This year I feel that [competitions] might be different because people are a lot more adapted to the pandemic.”


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