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Eliana Applebaum of Teaneck is right at home around laboratory equipment.

Seventeen-year-old Eliana Applebaum of Teaneck already has already won awards for three science research projects: an approach to regenerating human limbs, a way to develop a source of renewable energy, and a possible treatment for cancer.

The teen science superstar, a senior at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School in Teaneck, just scored another win. She was named a semifinalist in the Intel Science Talent Search for a project she conducted at the State University of New York at Stony Brook last summer. The project, “A New Approach to Cancer: The Effects of Titanium Dioxide (TiO2) Nanoparticles on Human Cervical Adenocarcinoma (HeLa) Cell Membrane Mechanics,” explored the use of tiny bullet-like particles to kill cancer cells.

The Intel Science Talent Search is the country’s most competitive and prestigious science competition for high school students. Each year the Intel STS chooses 300 semifinalists from 1,800 science projects submitted nationwide. The semifinalists are narrowed down to 40 finalists who travel to Washington D.C. for the final round of competition. Although Applebaum did not make that final cut, her status as a semifinalist puts her in good company, along with other talented students who, over the years, have gone on to successful careers in science research and to further math and science awards, including Nobel prizes.

Eliana and her twin sister, Ariella, both completed research projects last summer in the highly competitive Garcia Summer Research Scholars Program at SUNY Stony Brook. Eliana worked under the supervision of Dr. Miriam Rafailovich, a distinguished professor and co-director of materials science and engineering there. Ariella, who skipped her senior year of high school and now is a student at Stern College, was ineligible to apply for the Intel competition, which is only for high school students.

Keying on HeLa cells

Eliana Applebaum explained that her project involved studying HeLa cells, the cells made famous in Rebecca Skloot’s recent best-seller “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” “The cancer cells are immortal,” she said. “We did various tests to see the effects of nanoparticles. There was a lot of research on TiO2 in normal cells, but it hadn’t been tested on HeLa cells.”

Titanium dioxide (TiO2), the material used in Applebaum’s project, is a chemical that has many uses. Microfine particles of TiO2 can be found in such household products as paints, plastics, paper, ink, food coloring agents, and even toothpaste. Because TiO2 absorbs UV radiation, it is also used in many sunblocks. The nanoparticles of TiO2 Applebaum used in her project are 100 times smaller than the fine particles found in commercial products. They measure in the range of nanometers, or billionths of a meter, and are so small that they can penetrate, enter, and damage cells.

A earlier study conducted at UCLA showed that nanoparticles of TiO2 can damage DNA, suggesting an application for killing cancer cells, or as a kind of chemotherapy. Applebaum’s project took this observation one step further to reveal how the nanoparticles may kill the cells.

Applebaum’s work demonstrated that one way nanoparticles can kill cells is by damaging the cell membrane, the casing that holds a cell together. She exposed cells to TiO2, and used different techniques “to see if nanoparticles broke the membrane.” In addition, she said, “If they entered the nucleus, it could affect the DNA sequence.”

Applebaum learned many advanced laboratory techniques for her project. She learned how to grow HeLa cells in culture, how to count the cells, and how to test the membranes with the patch clamp technique, which measures electrical current across a microscopic cell membrane. She also used confocal and transmission electron microscopes to see fine details of cell structure.

Most of the research was completed during the summer of 2012. Eliana and Ariella Applebaum went to Stony Brook, on eastern Long Island, each week, lived in the university dormitory, and returned home each weekend. During the fall Eliana continued her work by driving to Stony Brook as necessary for long days of research, sometimes returning home at three in the morning so she would not miss school the next day.

Applebaum’s work could influence the way patients are treated during chemotherapy. She exposed cancer cells to TiO2 particles alone, and TiO2 plus dexamethasone. “Results showed that TiO2 had adverse effects on HeLa cell membranes leading to increased cell damage while DEX-TiO2 combination protected cells from NP damage,” Applebaum wrote in her Intel application. Dexamethasone sometimes is used to treat nausea during cancer chemotherapy, so it is useful to know that it appears to protect cells from nanoparticle damage. Because dexamethasone could block the anticancer activity of such a drug, it should not be used together with TiO2 during cancer treatment.

Considering future research in the area, Applebaum noted, “I think that nanoparticles can mutate normal cells and cause harmful effects. But if we can specifically target the cancer cells, nanoparticles could effectively kill them. But we have to figure out how to target just the cancer cells.”

Nurturing talent

Gila Stein, who chairs Ma’ayanot’s science department, said that Applebaum is an excellent student and that her family encourages her. “Her parents were very instrumental in getting the science research program [at Ma’ayanot] started,” she said. Eric and Sandra Applebaum, who have four daughters, both are physicians. The twins’ older sister, Kayla Applebaum, also has been a role model to them. She was an Intel STS semifinalist in 2010, also working on a project involving TiO2 at SUNY Stony Brook.

“Eliana’s been successful in other contests as well,” Stein said, referring her other awards and recognitions. Eliana and Ariella, along with Ma’ayanot classmate Elana Forman, also from Teaneck, won second place in the Toshiba/NSTA ExploraVision Awards Program in 2010 for their theoretical work designing a product for human limb regeneration. And in 2011 Eliana and Ariella were national semifinalists in the Siemens Science Competition in Science, Mathematics and Technology. They worked at Brookhaven National Laboratory on a project to design a renewable energy source from microalgae.

Noam Weinberger, a recent graduate of Yeshiva College who majored in physics, teaches at Ma’ayanot and directs its science research program. He reported that Ma’ayanot has two science elective courses in 10th and 11th grade that provide opportunities for students to do research.

In 10th grade, students have the opportunity to participate in the Gildor Family Projects and Inventions Competition, which is based in Israel and run by the Israel Center for Excellence through Education. According to ICEE’s brochure, “Students are asked to combine creativity, scientific knowledge, and problem-solving skills … to design and build an original invention to solve a problem faced by society.”

In 11th grade the Ma’ayanot science elective gives students the opportunity to read research articles and write essays on science topics. “They individually submit essays to science competitions, such as the DuPont essay competition,” Weinberger said. Some girls, like the Applebaum sisters, continue their research experience by spending the summer before 12th grade in a research lab.

Stein reported that students have submitted essays to the Toshiba/NSTA ExploraVision Awards Program and to the Siemens competition as well as to smaller essay competitions. “It’s quite a rigorous science program,” she said. “We want the girls to know that females can excel in science. The hands-on lab based programs are meant to get girls excited about science.”

“Outside of classes they are encouraged to enter into competitions on their own,” Weinberger said. He advises and guides these projects and “They can speak to me and submit essays to me [for review].

“Eliana is a very motivated student and a hard worker,” he said. “I’m impressed that she’s doing all the work on her own in addition to taking a full load of courses.”