Rising senior Nikhil Buduma competed in both the U.S. National and International BioGENEius Challenges in June. These competitions, for high school students who demonstrate an exemplary understanding of biotechnology through their research projects, were held in conjunction with the BIO (Biotechnology Industry Organization) Annual International Convention in Boston. Nikhil's research on Pertussis Toxin-Mediated Inhibition of Lymphocyte Trafficking into Lung Tissue: Considerations for an Improved Whooping Cough Vaccine analyzed and critiqued the current composition of the whooping cough vaccine.
"Clinically, there appears to be a profound delay between vaccine administration and the actual acquirement of immunity in infants, and I wanted to determine why exactly this is the case." said Buduma. "The whooping cough vaccine is first administered to the infant at two months of age, but adequate immunity doesn't appear until four months later, leaving the infant susceptible to contracting whooping cough despite having been immunized." Nikhil identified a particular component of the vaccine, called the pertussis toxin, which causes this observed clinical delay in the development of an appreciable immune defense. "I demonstrated that the pertussis toxin modulates the ability of dendritic cells to properly communicate with other immune cell populations. As a result, the pertussis toxin is able to downregulate the expression of two trafficking receptor populations on the surface of effector-memory helper T cells, hindering their migration from the peripheral circulation to the lungs. This, ultimately, impairs the infant's ability to combat the infection effectively."
Four hundred thirty-five students applied for the U.S. BioGENEius Challenge, competing at the state level or applying for at-large positions. Students were evaluated on 3 key factors: the quality of their research and display, their responses to questions relating to their scientific knowledge, and the potential commercial applications of their research. Nikhil was one of approximately 35 students who earned a spot to present his research in the national competition, and one of ten winners of the U.S. Challenge, which thereby qualified him for the International BioGENEius Challenge, which also included two students from Canada and two from Australia.
Although not selected as one of the four winners of the international competition, a pragmatic Buduma is appreciative of the experience and the knowledge gained through his research. "I hope to continue fleshing out the particular mechanisms by which the pertussis toxin affects resident dendritic cell populations in the lungs. The pathway I'm attempting to elucidate seems to be something that nobody has seen before, so if I am able to accomplish this, it may open up a completely new way of studying respiratory tract infections. Furthermore, I also plan to use my current results to develop a powerful diagnostic for whooping cough infections. One of the major problems with treating infants who have contracted the disease is that by the time we are able to determine that it is whooping cough and not the common cold, it is much too late for our antibiotic therapies to be effective. As a result, improving our ability to diagnose infection early may enable us to drastically reduce infant mortality."