Sixteen-year-old Serena Fasano, a junior at Glenelg High School, has been awarded a patent for a protein that she discovered - one that may someday help fight one of the world's deadliest diseases.
"It's phenomenal," said Kendall Morton, the science team leader at Glenelg. "I'm very happy for her."
Fasano will get to name the protein, she said, but she is not allowed to call it Serena, or to name it after her friends, as some have half-seriously requested. Instead, it will need a scientific name indicating it is a probiotic - a good protein.
In three years of scientific research and countless hours at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, where her father is a director of the Mucosal Biology Research Center, she has discovered a component of yogurt that seems to eradicate E.coli 042, the leading cause of diarrhea, which kills 6 million people a year, mostly children under the age of 2, and mostly in Third World countries.
Fasano is preparing to take her project to the county Science and Technology Fair, scheduled Friday and Saturday at Long Reach High School.
She has been accepted in the regional Baltimore Science Fair, set for March 25-26 at Towson University. Winners at that event can compete in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, which attracts 1,400 students from around the world. The event is scheduled for May 7-13 in Indianapolis.
Fasano's father, Alessio Fasano, noted that he helped her find the right people and also provided the research space. But, he said, a school science fair is what kick-started her love for research.
Fasano became interested in the healing properties of yogurt during her freshman year at Glenelg. At the time, she had no idea that her relatively simple experiment would lead to such an important discovery.
"I never thought it would come to this," she said.
Her freshman science teacher, Deano Smith, said Fasano was chatty in class and did not always pay attention. "I had a number of talks with her and her parents about working on focus," he said. That's certainly changed, he noted. "It was a matter of feeding the interest, and she stuck with it."
It all started at the Fasano kitchen table. "I'm sitting in my kitchen eating yogurt," she said, and she happened to notice that the container listed an unusual ingredient - lactobacillus. "So I Googled it," she said, "and I was introduced to what are known as probiotics."
For her freshman science project, she obtained - through her father - dishes of E.coli 042, added varying amounts of yogurt, and chronicled the results. The dish with the most yogurt had the least E.coli, so she was able to say that yogurt kills E.coli.
That was enough to win a top prize at both the school and the county science fair, but it wasn't enough to satisfy her curiosity. In Serena's sophomore year, the goal of her science project was to determine precisely what in the yogurt was killing the E.coli.
At that point, she began working with Dr. James Nataro, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland medical school, and with graduate student Nick Morin, who was familiar with lactobacillus.
"He taught me a lot," Fasano said of Morin. "He's not a doctor, and I kind of liked that. It was comfortable. I would ask him questions, and he would laugh at me. It was more laid-back because we were two students."
By the time of the science fair, she was able to state that the lactobacillus in the yogurt was secreting a substance that was toxic to the E.coli 042.
Once again, she won awards. And once again, her curiosity was not sated.
"This year, I simply wanted to know about that substance ... being secreted."
Science fair projects typically begin in the fall, but Fasano began her work in the summer. "I knew it was going to be kind of intense," she said.
There were many days, she said, when she was so consumed by her project that she barely slept. She would get a ride to the lab after school - she can't drive - work for a few hours, leave something incubating, then come back five hours later to see the result of the incubation.
"You've got to be passionate," she said. She worked with Dr. Ruiliang Lu, an expert in proteins at the medical school.
In January, it became clear that she had found something important. She had divided the secretion into five components, and one had a particularly deadly effect on the E.coli 042. She sent the component, called Fraction 3, to a lab and learned that it was an "uncharacterized protein," meaning nobody had discovered it.
"All the puzzle pieces at that moment came together," said Fasano, her enthusiasm shining on her face. She was awarded a patent Jan. 27.
"The really extraordinary part of the story is the fact that she's a kid," said Nataro.
He said one reason Fasano was able to make this discovery is that she set her sights high from the beginning.
"She was determined to find something important," he said. "Most people who come to a laboratory at any age, they don't have that goal."
He also noted that "she was in the right place at the right time," working with top researchers in a sophisticated laboratory. "You can't deny that luck plays a role," he said, but a person has to create the conditions for luck, and then recognize it when it appears.
The patent belongs to the University of Maryland, but Fasano will play a key role in learning more about the protein, eventually perhaps working with a pharmaceutical company to develop a way of fighting gastrointestinal illnesses.
As her science project states, this "opens unexplored horizons for an effective treatment of diarrheal diseases affordable for Third World countries."
The substance is known to be safe, since people eat it in yogurt, and is inexpensive to create and easy to transport.
Those are good signs, but there's still more work to do. Fasano is ready - she's been bitten by the research bug. "I just never want to stop," she said. "When it comes to hands-on lab stuff, I want to do this when I grow up."