High School Whiz Kids Search for MD Cure

Two high school seniors are competing in the Colorado State Science Fair today with a project that has real-world potential and scientists buzzing.

Classmates Lalith Polepeddi and Mike Polmear have taken a new approach to finding a cure for muscular dystrophy by looking at a way to "seal" leaky muscle cell membranes, which can contribute to loss of muscle control.

"We got interested in this after reading a paper by a researcher at the University of Michigan who had tested a cousin of this polymer on a heart muscle," said Polepeddi, who created the project with Polmear. "So, we'd try a different chemical to try to seal the skeletal muscles."

Polepeddi and Polmear -- who are both in their last year at Cherry Creek High School in Greenwood Village, Colo. -- injected the sealant into mice with the disease, and got good results with this "molecular Band-Aid."

If it proved effective in humans, it could help cure a specific type of muscular dystrophy called Duchenne's, which affects about 10,000 children nationwide and right now has no cure. Victims have difficulty walking, an abnormal gait, and severe limb weakness. Most require the use of a wheelchair by age 8, and survival past the early 30s is rare because of respiratory or cardiac complications.

"This is not a cure and the research is very preliminary, but it is a direction that has not been explored before," said Dr. Brian Tseng, a muscular dystrophy researcher at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and a doctor at The Children's Hospital. Tseng worked with the students on this project.

Polepeddi and Polmear, who became friends in their eighth-grade biology class, worked in Tseng's lab last year on a bone cancer project that won them first place at the state science fair and third place at the International Science Fair.

Tseng says he is very impressed by the students' work ethic.

"No one expected this level of intensity from them," he said. "They have worked in their evenings, their weekends, their spring break and holiday break. They read all the medical journals, and once a week they present their work and we really grill them."

Despite the amount of time the boys spent in the lab, they still found time for other pursuits. Polmear -- who wants to be a biomedical engineer and continue to do research on muscular dystrophy -- plays lacrosse and golf, and runs cross-country.

Polepeddi wants to be a heart surgeon. He likes basketball and Frisbee, and plays with the school's percussion group. They both plan to work at a camp for muscular dystrophy patients over the summer.

To learn more about Polmear's, Polepeddi's and Tseng's research, click here.

To learn more about muscular dystrophy, click here.

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