Dutta Takes Best-of-Show Award at Piedmont Regional Science Fair

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Arun Dutta at the 2010 Virginia Piedmont Science Fair.
Arun Dutta at the 2010 Virginia Piedmont Science Fair.

Western Albemarle High School junior Arun Dutta explained his entry in the 29th annual Virginia Piedmont Science Fair—“HPV Oncogene E6 Targets Histone Acetyl Transferases in Cancer Cell,” an investigation seemingly worthy of an National Institutes of Health grant—to VPSF Best-of-Show Judge Catherine Perham, a radiation safety officer with U.Va.’s Office of Environmental Health and Safety. In the end, he won Grand Award Best of Show for a project so sophisticated that it clearly outmatched most entries. Dutta was also awarded first place in cellular and molecular biology for the senior division, the Battelle Memorial Institute’s Innovation Award, and a special commendation from the judges.

Dutta said he began working in his father Anindya Dutta’s medical research lab while in eighth grade at Henley Middle School. Anindya Dutta is a professor in U.Va.’s department of biochemistry and molecular genetics.

“This is my own project,” Arun explained. “I had help from a post-doc, Sudhakar Jha, who taught me how to do it.

“The Human Papilloma Virus [HPV] causes cancer by inserting its DNA into a target cell which expresses it and thus becomes cancerous,” he said. “The cell’s security system is bypassed by HPV by two proteins, E6 and E7. The research looked at how HPV uses E6 to take over the cell.

“I found, most importantly, that the Tip60 histone acetylase complex actually works as a gene suppressor. That’s a new discovery. I looked at how E6 affects all 20,000 genes in the genome. I’m particularly interested in ATF4, a gene that helps cells at the center of tumors get blood and nutrients to the center of the cell. It’s very important for cancers. The biggest idea is that E6 alters gene suppression in literally thousands and thousands of genes. Any number could be candidates for research on HPV’s effectiveness in causing cancer.”

Dutta said he wants to be a medical researcher and hopes to attend U.Va. “or some other school.” He spent all last summer and the Christmas holidays working on the project. Next he said he will choose specific genes to continue the research on.

Dutta is the first WAHS student to enter the science fair in 27 years. He was encouraged by his biology teacher, Wally Adesina. Dutta’s project also was named the Most Outstanding Exhibit Using In Vitro Biology/Tissue Culture, the Outstanding Exhibit in Cellular and Molecular Biology and won the Virginia Dental Association’s Grand Award. Dutta’s awards mean he will have his expenses paid to attend the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in May in San Jose, California, where students compete for more than $3 million in prizes and scholarships.

Other awards to local students went to Henley Middle School’s Trevor Stutzman, who took third place in chemistry, as well as the Air Force Award, for “The Effect of Temperature on a Catalase Reaction” and to Hannah Ridings, a sixth grader who is homeschooled, who won a second-place award in the microbiology category for her project, “The Effect of the Percentage of Whole Wheat Flour in Bread on the Percent of Outward Mold Growth.”

Other local contestants included Henley’s Seamore Zhu, “Blue Transformation from Copper to Ion to Copper”; Adeline Sandridge, “The Effectiveness of Sunscreens”; Osiris Crutchfield and Austin Germani, “CO2 Explosion”; and Lillian Xu, “Seeing is Be-leafing.”

Held at the John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville March 10, the fair drew contestants from more than 30 schools in the central Piedmont stretching from Nelson County to King George County. Competition was open in 18 science and engineering categories to students in grades 6 through 12. According to the fair’s program, China and India now graduate 14 engineering students for every one engineering graduate in the U.S.