What could be a life-saving breakthrough in the fight against cystic fibrosis, cancer and AIDS has been achieved by a 17-year-old Indian-American student at the Mississippi Institute of Mathematics and Science. Madhavi Gavini is one of the quieter students at this prestigious boarding school. "She doesn't stand up and raise her hand and answer questions," science teacher Gil Katzenstein observes. "She actually likes to ask questions; questions about things she doesn't know. She's a student in the best sense: someone who's interested in learning and doing."
It was that thirst for knowledge that drove Madhavi to search for a way to help a friend with cystic fibrosis. "I found out that most people who have CF die of pseudomonas infections," she recalls, "so I wanted to see if there was anything I could do to help." She was 14 at the time. "I guess the thought that a 14-year-old can't really do much to help, didn't really occur to me," she says with a shrug.
Pseudomonas bacteria -- in addition to killing people with cystic fibrosis -- can cause deadly secondary infections in people with immune-suppressing conditions such as AIDS, cancer and severe burns. This opportunistic pathogen forms a thick, protective layer around itself, making it nearly impossible for antibiotics to penetrate and destroy it.
To find a way through the bacterium's shield, the young scientist turned to Ayurvedic medicine. Madhavi, who was born in India, spent a great deal of time watching her grandparents, who were practitioners of the traditional Indian healing techniques. "I grew up learning a lot of that," she recalls. "They've used it so much that I know it has some effect. They wouldn't have used it for centuries if it didn't. So I decided to try that approach, and it worked."
With an herb book from her grandparents as her guide, Madhavi sampled common grocery store and green houseplants, such as cinnamon, ginger and aloe. She obtained a strain of pseudomonas bacteria from the local university and began subjecting the germs to various plant extracts.
One of the common tropical plant extracts penetrated the bacterium's protective layer. Next, Madhavi isolated the specific molecule in the extract that was able to inhibit bacterial growth. She found that the molecule was heat resistant, and resistant to pressure. "It kills the cell," she explains, "by preventing the transcription of the genes involved in energy, metabolism, adaptation, membrane transport, and toxin secretion."
The young scientist has several ideas about how her discovery might be applied. One is as an inhaler. "A lot of people have chronic lung infections," she observes. "It's one of the most commonly infected sites. So an inhaler would be able to directly deliver this drug to the lungs." She is also considering the possibility of an antiseptic spray for open wounds and severe burns.
Her work has already earned her several national awards, including top honors at the 2006 Intel Science and Engineering Fair and the Siemens Westinghouse Competition.
While Madhavi could become a millionaire by patenting her work, she has something else in mind: making it openly available. She points out, "If I were going to patent this, the rights would have to be sold to a pharmaceutical company, and that would greatly increase the cost of the drug once it's developed. So to prevent that from happening, by publishing it, the information becomes readily available and any company that wants to manufacture it, would be able to. So the price would be much lower due to competition and the people who need it most will have access to it."
She suspects there are many more alternative cures waiting, perhaps in plain sight, to be found. Teacher Gil Katzenstein is confident that if anyone can find them, it's Madhavi Gavini.