Monday, January 12, 2009

Student's research provides insights into alcohol addiction

Kapil Ramachandran, 17, is a freshman at Duke who's scientific career has already won him national acclaim.

At age 16, his research about alcohol addiction won him a prestigious award at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. According to Kapil, his innovative research was inspired by his experiences while working in the emergency room of a hospital.

"I saw a patient come in who had overdosed on alcohol and narcotics. I thought, 'Why would anyone do that to themselves? How could they become so addicted to something that they're willing to risk their life for it?' That's what switched me on."

Kapil looked for labs in his hometown, Austin, Texas, that were conducting research about addiction. He found a lab that was integrating behavior and molecular biology, and began his research.

"I had to figure out a suitable model organism to work with. I picked fruit flies because they are very easily manipulable in terms of genetics. It's easy to create them; they have a limited number of chromosomes and reproduce quickly."

"First, I had to survey genes that could have been implicated in addiction. The search was actually a random systematic search. I picked a chromosome and I started deleting chunks of it. I took an entire chromosome and every 12 genes I would excise out 12 genes."

This search yielded 600 to 700 lines of flies. During the excision process, Kapil also developed a behavioral test to measure their tolerance of alcohol. When he ran all the lines of flies through the test, he found that only one or two groups did not show tolerance. He examined these groups to see what genes they had in common. From there, he narrowed in on the family of genes, and then to specific genes and proteins.

Although Kapil conducted his experiment on fruit flies, it has many implications for the future treatment of alcohol addiction in humans.

"The project was fully independent. My professor and my coworkers taught me the techniques, but other than that, the research, the ideas were mine."

"[My parents] put up with me not being home until 3 a.m. I was at the lab 11 hours a day ... I worked my ass off."

Kapil was awarded the prize in May 2008, the day before his birthday. In addition to recognition for his efforts, he received $15,000.

"That was some nice cash in the bag the day before my birthday," Kapil said. What is he using the money for? "I'm coming here," he laughs. (Photo: Kapil with Elias Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health.)

"It's awesome. Without a doubt. I love this place. Basketball is #1- there's no atmosphere like Cameron. And the people I've met here. There's such a wide variety of people, it's incredible. And they're so freaking smart."

It's an impressive compliment, coming from one as successful as himself.

Tuesday night, Kapil will be talking about his work at Periodic Tables Durham's entry into the science cafe movement -- a social event for science-minded adults that provides information and discussion about the latest scientific research.