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Treating a tricky disease: Abhishek Verma

Abhishek Verma, 15, a Class 10 student of Maharaja Agrasain Public School, Delhi, bagged the first prize in the 'animal science' category at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). Abhishek, who along with his classmate Daksh Dua got the award for their research on a potential medicine against the intestinal disease giardiasis, talks to Gargi Gupta

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Treating a tricky disease: Abhishek Verma
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A large portion of the credit for our performance at ISEF should go to my teacher, Ritu Gupta Ma'am, who has taught us science since we were in Class 8. Not only does she explain everything thoroughly, she also widens our horizons by speaking to us about concepts and phenomena much beyond the syllabus. Ritu Ma'am encouraged Daksh and me a lot. She told us whom to approach for information and what books to read, and also explained the difficult concepts in these books. My sister, who had participated in ISEF in 2011 and got the fourth prize, also guided me on how to answer the kind of questions asked.

For our project we decided to work on giardiasis because it is an infection of the small intestine that causes severe diarrhoea, is spread by contaminated water and is common among poor people who live in slums. We visited doctors at the All India Institute of Medical Science to know more about the disease, its symptoms and the medicines generally used to treat it. We also spoke to various scientists and research scholars at Delhi University, especially Dr A.K. Bhatnagar, professor of botany. Dr Bhatnagar had been a judge on IRIS, the domestic science competition run by Intel in India. He directed us to the department of microbiology in Panjab University where researchers have been working on the protozoa that causes giardiasis. We then went through the Epigraphica Botanica, which lists all the plants found on Earth along with their known pharmacological properties, looking for plants that contained the compounds known to be effective against the giardiasis protozoa.

Rubus ellipticus, which is the scientific name for the yellow Himalayan raspberry, a kind of thorny shrub that grows widely in many parts of Asia, was one plant we found had the compound in high degrees. But where to find it? Ultimately, my mausa-ji got it from Dehradun.

We conducted experiments on the rubus ellipticus at the labs at DU. We first had to prepare an extract of the plant. But we had no idea how to do it or how to use the various machines such as the centrifuge or the electronic microscope. So I browsed through the internet to find articles in academic journals explaining the processes. Next we had to check which part of the plant was more effective - the root portion, we found, worked better than the shoot. At INSEF, the rule is that you can only conduct in-vitro (test tube) tests - no tests on animals are allowed. So we had to test the action of the plant extract on the giardiasis protozoa culture in a test tube, checking for the right potency at which it was effective, on what effect it had on the mortality of the protozoa, and on its reproductive and encystation systems. There are drugs available against giardiasis, but these have side-effects and have also become ineffective because the microorganisms have developed resistance against them. We had to show that our herbal extract was not just more economic, but it was also more effective in killing the microorganism and safer because it harmed fewer healthy cells.

Of course, we still have a long way to go, conduct many more tests before we can think of commercialising the technology.

I have always been interested in biology and got good marks in the subject. But I have decided to take up commerce and follow my sister who's doing her graduation in commerce from SRCC (Shri Ram College of Commerce).

The competition for college admissions after Class 12 is just too severe and I am not sure what'll happen. But my teachers all want me to continue with science - and I am still undecided. At 15, I have time to change my mind, but I know that this achievement, and my visits to Los Angeles and China where we went on a trip, are experiences that will stay with us forever.

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