Age: 18Woodcliff Lake, NJ
Project Title: Dihydrotanshinone: A Pan-Therapeutic Treatment for Chemoresistance in Cancer
Varun developed a combination therapy that may help reverse resistance to a drug commonly used (Temozolomide) to treat glioblastoma, the most common and aggressive type of brain tumor in adults. Varun showed that combination therapy with Temozolomide and Dihydrotanshinone, an analogue of which is in clinical trials, effectively targeted cancer cells more than either drug alone. Further, Varun showed that the combination therapy did not substantially affect normal cells and used a self-built model of the blood-brain barrier to demonstrate that the therapy had potential to reach the brain by crossing the blood-brain barrier. His work may represent a promising therapeutic option for highly aggressive cancers and a way to amplify existing chemotherapies.
Varun Kumar is a graduate of the Bergen County Academies in Hackensack, New Jersey. He is interested in the medical technology industry and hopes to continue improving the quality of healthcare in various communities. He is honored to be named a Davidson Fellow Laureate, as it validates his efforts on his research on drug resistance in aggressive cancers and motivates him to continue pursuing his goals. Varun looks forward to meeting like-minded peers and learning as much from them as he has from his project.
Varun developed a combination therapy that may help reverse resistance to a drug commonly used (Temozolomide) to treat glioblastoma, the most common and aggressive type of brain tumor in adults. Varun showed that combination therapy with Temozolomide and Dihydrotanshinone, an analogue of which is in clinical trials, effectively targeted cancer cells in vitro more than either drug alone. Further, the combination therapy did not substantially affect normal cells and had potential to reach the brain by crossing the blood-brain barrier. Varun was motivated to pursue this project after he had the realization that a large amount of time and resources are utilized to develop a drug, only to discover that a majority of patients are resistant to the drug; Varun desired to target a medically unmet need with critically few options for treatment. His work may represent a promising therapeutic option for highly aggressive cancers and a way to amplify existing chemotherapies.
The work for Varun’s project was all conducted in his high school, the Bergen County Academies, in a biosafety level 2 laboratory. As a part of the public magnet school’s research program, Varun conducted research during the school day in between classes, managing both schoolwork and research during his free periods. His mentor, Mrs. Donna Leonardi, was a great support throughout the project, assisting with assay selection and lab safety. His mentor led a research prerequisite class in which lab technique and safety were taught prior to any experimentation. In addition, his high school science teachers were very inspiring and motivated him to continue pursuing his project. Relatedly, the greatest challenge that Varun faced with his project is the limitation of conducting cancer research in a high school; maximizing and being creative with the available resources was critical.
There are various important applications of Varun’s work, all of which could improve the lives of people suffering from cancer. Despite multimodal treatment, the median survival rate for glioblastoma is 14-16 months, with about a 2% 3-year survival rate. The combination therapy that Varun developed could offer a promising therapeutic option for those with this aggressive brain cancer, potentially improving the quality of life. More generally, his research offers a way to enhance the efficacy of current chemotherapies, improving outcomes for patients with aggressive cancers even further. In addition, Varun made a model of the blood-brain barrier, the most important factor for drugs targeting brain diseases. Varun’s model could serve as a cost effective and accessible way for other researchers to confirm that a drug has potential to reach the brain, improving the efficiency of the brain disease drug pipeline.
Varun is a recent graduate of the Bergen County Academies (BCA), a public magnet school in Hackensack, New Jersey. A graduate of the Academy for the Advancement of Science and Technology at BCA, Varun has been able to take courses in research, pharmacology, organic chemistry, botany, and more. He is incredibly appreciative of the unique STEM experience he has had at his high school, as well as the in-house research program where he completed his project on drug resistance in cancer. He also participated in his school’s Senior Experience program, in which he was a part of an Alzheimer’s Disease team at a pharmaceutical company. Varun will attend Yale University in the fall to study molecular biology and data science.
For his project, Varun has been recognized as a Regeneron Science Talent Search Finalist, ISEF Third Grand Award winner, JSHS Finalist, AAN Neuroscience Research Prize Finalist, and AACR Annual Meeting poster presenter. He is a Simons Fellow and participated in the Simons Summer Research Program at Stony Brook University. Varun also has two first-author publications in the journals Anticancer Research and Biomedicine and Pharmacotherapy. Outside of the lab, Varun has directed his school’s BROADCOM MASTERS affiliated middle school science fair and a team for the Rutgers Oncology Olympiad, which won overall second place. He enjoys playing tennis, swimming, tutoring elementary schoolers, and watching stand-up comedy in his free time.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I see myself leading a biotech or medtech company, improving the quality of life for others with AI, data science, and medical research.
If you could have dinner with the five most interesting people in the world, living or dead, who would they be?
Hasan Minhaj, Daniel Kahneman, Indra Noori, Leonardo DaVinci, and Abraham Lincoln
If you could be on any TV show, which one would it be?
Game of Thrones
In the News
Click here to download the full press release
Click the image to download hi-res photos of Varun:
Started in 1999, the Davidson Institute for Talent Development is a 501(c)3 private operating foundation. Our mission is to recognize, nurture and support profoundly intelligent young people ages 18 and under, and to provide opportunities for them to develop their talents to make a positive difference.
Profoundly gifted students are those who score in the 99.9th percentile on IQ and achievement tests. Read more about this population in this article.