Armed with an algorithm and a protein of his own design, one Oro Valley teen aims to find a cure for Parkinson’s disease, and his work has already garnered international attention. 

Last month 18-year-old Jeremiah Pate was recognized at the 2017 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair held in Los Angeles for his ongoing efforts. A science fair regular, Pate has competed for most of his academic career with guidance from the Southern Arizona Research, Science and Engineering Foundation. The fair, at which more than 7 million different amateur scientists and researchers hope to one day showcase their work, invites nearly 2,000 local, regional, state and national science-fair winners to compete for $4 million in scholarships and awards. 

For his work, Pate won the Dudley R. Herschbach Stockholm International Youth Science Seminar Award, or SIYSS, which sends winners on a week-long academic seminar in Stockholm, Sweden, and includes an all-expenses-paid trip to the Nobel Prize Awards. Pate also earned the Intel ISEF best-of category award, worth $5,000, and another $1,000 each to his school and SARSEF, the INTEL ISEF first-place award worth $3,000 and a University of Arizona tuition scholarship worth $40,000.

The inspiration for his project, entitled “Ameliorating Alpha-Synuclein Aggregation in Parkinson’s Using Optimized Chaperones: An in silico Approach,” came to Pate after a family friend was diagnosed with the disease about five years ago. Coming to the realization last year that his long science-fair career may have a significant real-world application, Pate said he used his experience in engineering projects to view the problem in a different light. 

He said that in medicine, treatment is looked at from a clinical perspective: “How can I treat this?” Wanting to get to the root of the problem, Pate said it all comes down to folding errors in proteins.

“It’s as simple as Origami,” he said. “You have a protein that is supposed to be a certain shape, and their mechanism to handle that is misfolding, and that protein becomes a shape that aggregates. That is really the cause of Parkinson’s, so the focus of my project really became: How can we reshape that protein?”

The body has its own sort of aggregation, the proteostasis system, in which key proteins (known as chaperones) correct folding issues.  Pate said that in a patient dealing with Parkinson’s, the aggregation is too great for the system to fix. Much like an antibiotic boosts the effectiveness of the immune system, Pate said he wanted to create a boost for the proteostasis system.

Pate created a data-mining algorithm to sift through a publicly available protein database. With that information, he developed the template for a protein, and the design was refined and manipulated over time. Eventually, that protein would be tested at a University of Arizona lab under Dr. Daniela Zarnescu, whose work focuses on Lou Gehrig’s disease. In the lab, Pate tested his protein model on fruit flies, which only have four chromosomes, so it makes variable elimination much easier.

Several months passed before he finally heard the good news: The protein eliminated the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease in the flies.

“I finally felt validated, because everything before this was all hand-waiving, basically,” he said. “It should work, but having that confirmation that it did work and was actually functional…It was very powerful.”

Updating his project at the last moment with the results before entering the science fair, Pate would go on to earn several awards in his run, which culminated in winning the Nobel trip in California.

Amber Pate said her son always had a keen interest in anything scientific. A pharmacist herself, Amber said she graduated from her schooling the same year her son finished kindergarten – and the connection stuck with him for life.

“He’s always been a curious person,” she said. “Ever since he was 2-years-old, he was sitting on top of my biology book looking at the differences between plant and animal cells. He has always been interested in a lot of different things, and I think his focus is really going to help him in the future.”

Pate’s mother is not the only person impressed with his work, and SARSEF deputy director Liz Baker said she is excited to go to schools next year and talk to students about what they could do with a bit of determination – and some supplemental science education.

Baker said the most important foundation from which to develop a child’s scientific interest is to find topics in which the students hold personal interest or by coming up with real-world problems to which they can easily relate. If that foundation can be built, Baker said, then a student can benefit as much as Pate has: becoming an amateur scientist confident enough to present their work to the world.

“We know that the state of science education in Arizona is not good, to be very kind,” she said. “We want to be able to offer the out-of-the-textbook and out-of-the-box opportunities for students to explore what science really is and what science really can be. Science isn’t something that you memorize from a textbook, you experiment. Things don’t always go right, and that’s okay because you don’t always need a right answer. So we help them see in color instead of black and white.”

Pate said what he has learned in his years with SARSEF was all the scientific education he needed and believes that he is well on the way to tackling real world issues – with science. After the summer break Pate will continue his academic journey at the UA, studying biomedical engineering.

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