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NCSSM Student From Cary A BIO Hit

Project Title: Drosophila p21-activated kinase 3 in Glia Interacts with flower in Neurons to Regulate Synapse Structure and Function

Description: Spastin is a neuronal gene which is important to proper axonal growth and synapse development. Loss of spastin causes Autosomal Dominant Hereditary Spastic Paraplegia (AD-HSP), which can lead to muscle weakness and even paralysis in the lower limbs. However, when pak3, a glial expressed gene, is mutated along with spastin, it completely suppresses spastin mutant phenotypes. Thus, pak3 is of significant interest for therapeutic treatment of AD-HSP. To learn more about the genetic mechanisms by which pak3 functions, we decided to test if pak3 interacts with genes, other than spastin, which affect synapse development, such as flower, which allows for proper neurotransmitter release at presynaptic terminals. Since both flower and spastin similarly affect synapse formation, we hypothesized that pak3 interacts with flower as well. To test this idea, we dissected Drosophila larvae with pak3 and flower mutations and inspected the synapses at their muscle 4 neuromuscular junctions. Here, we show that whereas pak3 mutants show only minimal synaptic defects and flower mutants have major deficiencies, when both genes are simultaneously mutated, loss of pak3 significantly enhances flower mutant synaptic phenotypes. Thus, pak3 and flower interact synergistically to regulate synapse structure and function.

What young scientist Daniel Ren didn’t collect in cash at the BIO International Convention in San Diego, he amassed in cachet.

The Cary youth was selected as one of this year’s top 15 international high school students whose bioscience work wowed the judges in the 2014 International BioGENEius Challenge.

The contest is sponsored by the Biotechnology Institute to nurture innovative and skilled student scientists. The international finals are scheduled each year as part of the BIO International Convention – in this case, running through Thursday.

The students presented their research to convention attendees. Ren is a student in the North Carolina School of Science & Math in Durham, class of 2015. He previously attended Green Hope High School.

Always interested in science, biotech

“I've always been interested in science and biotechnology,” said Ren, the only child of computer-scientist parents. “I first became involved in research the summer after my sophomore year because an older friend encouraged me to do it. I've enjoyed it ever since. I applied to NCSSM during my sophomore year and started school at NCSSM about a year ago, at the beginning of my junior year.” 

“I am highly interested in neuroscience, immunology, and biochemistry research. When I grow up, I want to become a neurologist or neurosurgeon, doing both clinical work and research.”

Besides research, Ren’s primary interest is trombone. He was selected to participate in the All-National Honor Band last year and works as a freelance giving private trombone lessons to middle and high school students. He’s also student senate president, captain of the school’s Science Bowl team, and a varsity wrestler and tennis player.

As for college, “My top two schools right now are Harvard and Yale,” he said, “but I'm also looking at Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, Stanford, Duke, and UNC at Chapel Hill. I am interested in doing premed in college and pursuing an MD/MBA program after college.” 

Four won cash prizes

The top four selected from the 15 finalists collected cash prizes during a BIO lunch keynoted by Sir Richard Branson.

The $7,500 first-place winner was Emily Wang, a recent graduate of Henry M. Gunn High School, Palo Alto. Her research was in developing fluorescent proteins to improve biosensing.

The other winners, in order, were:

  • Logan Collins, Fairview High School, Boulder, $5,000
  • Neil Davey, Montgomery Blair High School, Silver Spring, Maryland, $2,500
  • Nathan Han, Boston Latin School, Boston, $1,000

Myra Halpin, Ph.D., a chemistry instructor at NCSSM who is often involved in student competitions, was Ren’s faculty sponsor for the BioGENEius Challenge.

Ren's project looked at nerve cell connection points, called synapses, that transmit electrical impulses. They’re carefully regulated in a healthy organism by genes – the building blocks of life. But if a gene in a nerve cell becomes broken or otherwise changed, it can result in nervous system disorders and diseases.

Looking for human cures in fruit flies

Ren studied a disease called Autosomal Dominant Hereditary Spastic Paraplegia (AD-HSP), a currently untreatable condition which results from impaired synapse development. AD-HSP causes chronic muscle weakness in the lower limbs, and in severe cases, can lead to paralysis below the waist.

Using fruit flies as model organisms, Ren examined a genetic target for potential therapeutic regulation of AD-HSP and investigated its interaction with other genes in promoting proper synapse development. Understanding the nervous system in fruit flies can lead to a better understanding of the causes of nervous system disorders in humans, and ultimately to their cures.

That's a lay-language attempt to describe his work. You can read the scientific version, in his words, in the accompanying sidebar.

But it’s just an early installment in what promises to be a prolific contribution to science and humanity.

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