High school student's research could lead to better tumor treatment

The bulky white lab coat is at least two sizes too big, but Muna Oli pulls it on anyway, rolling up the sleeves until she can see her hands again. After slipping on blue gloves, she opens the lab’s fridge, where the cells she is studying are stored in tiny bottles.

Opening a bottle, her nose wrinkles slightly. The cells are contaminated, but it’s OK, she says. She has more, and it won’t affect her project. Since June, Oli has been studying what happens when gold nanorods are injected into tumor cells and then shot with an infrared laser. On the basis of the research literature she has read, she thinks the method may be able to kill tumor cells without damaging surrounding healthy tissue.

Muna Oli working in neuroscientist Brent Reynolds' lab. Photo by Sarah Kiewel

Muna Oli working in neuroscientist Brent Reynolds' lab. Photo by Sarah Kiewel

“It will almost explode in a way, but it explodes at a much lower temperature than radiation,” said Oli, who splits time between labs at the College of Medicine and College of Engineering. “Hypothetically, you could use gold nanorods, put them in a tumor, shoot it with a laser, and it heats up just enough to explode the nanorod, but it doesn’t damage surrounding tissue. It’s much less invasive.”

But the research has to be done first. That’s why Oli spends most days working in the lab, although she doesn’t have as much time as other researchers. After all, Oli, 16, can’t get to the lab until her school day is over at Eastside High School.

Oli, a sophomore at Eastside, grew up around labs. Her father is UF ecologist Madan Oli, and her mother is a microbiologist. Oli’s own career in science started with the sixth-grade science fair, when she performed “a simple experiment” to test the toxicity of metals in items found in most houses, such as speakers and CDs.

“A lot of them were toxic,” she said. “You put them in the landfill and then the acidic rain leaches them out and it finds its way into the water systems and stuff.”

Afterward, she began approaching UF scientists for advice and permission to work in their labs, starting with Gabriel Bitton, whose test she had used for her first science fair project. By 16, Oli has already logged in dozens of hours working in the labs of some of UF’s most esteemed scientists, including neuroscientist Brent Reynolds, Ph.D., who directs UF Adult Stem Cell Engineering and Therapeutic Core. For her current project, she spends half her time working with cells in Reynolds’ lab and the other half making gold nanorods in engineering professor Kevin Powers’ lab.

“I kind of half-jokingly tell people, when I tell them about the project, that she is the smartest person in my lab,” Reynolds said. “She’s one of those kids who just gets it. I didn’t come looking for her. She came looking for me. She came with a project. With very little modification, it has been designed and carried out exclusively by her.”

Oli began studying nanotechnology as part of her project for the science fair last year. She studied silver nanoparticles and their effect on the environment, testing them, E. coli, water fleas and other microscopic forms of life.

“The thing about nanotechnology is there are several different kinds of materials — nanorods, nanoparticles, nanotubes — and different elements and different applications,” Oli said. “One I got started in nanotechnology, I was really interested in it.”

And this year’s experiment may lead to more than blue ribbons and trophies. Reynolds said he thinks Oli’s research could lead to a promising approach for treating glioblastoma, the type of tumor Oli has been studying. Glioblastoma is one of the most common cancers in adults, and there is currently no effective way to treat it, Reynolds said.

“It’s incredibly exciting because it has the potential to be a new therapeutic, and this is coming from a child in grade 10,” Reynolds said. “The drive and focus she has to get involved in basic research and see these projects to fruition, it requires a lot of vision. It’s not an instant gratification. There are a lot of kids in their 20s that realize they don’t have that quality.”

For now, Oli is focused on finishing her work and hopes her project does well enough to make it to the international science fair, her goal this year. And as for the future?

“I want to go to UF, but I’m not sure,” she said. “As of right now, I want to do a combined M.D./Ph.D., which is hard I know, but it sounds fun.”