TPHS teens develop blood test to detect ovarian cancer

Gitanjali and Priyanka Multani, incoming seniors at Torrey Pines High School, are two young scientists pioneering an effort for early detection of ovarian cancer. The identical twins share an identical goal to help future cancer patients, and are working to develop a blood test for ovarian cancer through the use of a microfluidic chip.

They are working to create a computer model and get the chip manufactured at the microfluidic center at UC San Diego by September.

The test is the result of the evolving science project the twins began last year, “Early Detection of Epithelial Ovarian Cancer via B7-H4 Quantification in a Microfluidic System.” The project won first place in the biochemistry category at the Greater San Diego Regional Science Fair in February and went on to the California State Science Fair in May, where the Multanis took second place in the senior division in biochemistry/molecular biology.

The Multani twins’ passion for research was jump-started by their family’s own experiences — Gitanjali was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in her freshman year of high school.

“I was very lucky because I only had to have two surgeries to remove the tumor, and so far I have been in remission,” Gitanjali said. “The reason we wanted to go with a chip idea, (is that) if we can get it down to a simple blood test it would eliminate a lot of the invasive tests that women have to do.”

Originally told the mass was benign and it turned out it wasn’t, a surgery had to be done to even determine it was malignant. It would be meaningful for Gitanjali to find a way to help future patients.

Their lab work was spurred by a six-week summer research program in 2015, where they did a project creating a computer algorithm to predict epileptic seizures. They wanted to try out a similar method in a wet laboratory.

In their independent research, the twins prefer to work as a team.

“We both have our own skill sets and it helps that we’ve always been close,” Gitanjali said. “A lot of Carmel Valley students do internships; we like to separate ourselves because we have different motivations behind it all.”

To conduct their research, they contacted a ton of labs — 52 — until Dr. Ratneshwar Lal at UC San Diego finally agreed to take them on. Since last year, they have been with Dr. Lal, as well as their mentor, Preston Landon, a research scientist at UC San Diego.

“All of our mentors are really happy with the work we’ve done so far,” Gitanjali said.

The Multanis’ work is centered on the discovery that the protein B7-H4 is over-expressed on surfaces of ovarian tumors. B7-H4 is a protein found in only low amounts of normal tissues but highly concentrated in over 90 percent of ovarian cancer cases. The surface of the tumor regularly sheds into the bloodstream, so they aimed to create a non-invasive blood test.

Their project involved using a monoclonal antibody that recognizes B7-H4’s presence through nanoparticle luminescence. The goal was to compact the system into a microfluidic chip.

They used an ELISA test, a well-known assay that can detect and quantify the presence of antigens and antibodies in a sample.

“ELISA is normally done on a 96-well micro plate, but we compacted the test onto an iron oxide magnetic nanoparticle that is coupled to the capture antibody in order to make the complex compatible with a microfluidic system,” Priyanka said.

A model of a microfluidic chip uses magnets to separate the particle complex. Simulations of the designed chip showed that they were successful in separating B7-H4 and quantifying its presence.

Both twins would like to pursue engineering in the future. Gitanjali is leaning toward biomedical engineering, improving medicine with the use of machines; Priyanka is interested in majoring in biomedical engineering that correlates with their current research as well as a minor in aerospace engineering.

They are going through the college application process now, eyeing some of the nation's best schools.

The Multani twins weren’t the only San Dieguito Union High School students to have success at the California State Science Fair.

Brian Xia, an incoming senior at Canyon Crest Academy, won the Project of the Year award at the state competition. He earned a $5,000 prize for his project “Single Molecule Based Transgenerational Therapies to Extend Healthspan and Prevent Multiple Aging Related Diseases.”

Six other students ranked highly at the fair: CCA junior Maggie Chen won first in microbiology; CCA senior Liana Merk won second in microbiology; TPHS senior Madeline Song took third place in environmental science; CCA juniors Nicolas Laqua and Annam Tran won fourth in plant biology; and TPHS senior Mihika Nadig won an honorable mention in mathematics and computer science.

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