L-R Alan Tan, Sid Bommakanti, Daniel Chae – prize winning science students
A 3D printer, some old teeth, and some terrific science were enough to help three high school students develop a new way of growing bone and win a $30,000 prize in a national competition.
The three teamed up for the Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology, which bills itself as “the nation’s premier research competition for high school students”.
The trio includes two from the San Francisco Bay area, where we are based; Sid Bommakanti from Amador Valley High School in Pleasanton, and Alan Tan, from Irvington High School in Fremont. The third member of the team, Daniel Chae, goes to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia.
The three used mesenchymal stem cells – which are capable of being turned into muscle, cartilage or bone – which they got from the dental pulp found in wisdom teeth that had been extracted.
In a story posted on the KQED website Tan says they thought it would be cool to take something that is normally thrown away, and recycle it:
“When we learned we could take stem cells from teeth—it’s actually part of medical waste—we realized could turn this into bone cells,”
The students used a 3D printer to create a kind of scaffold out of a substance called polylatctic acid – it’s an ingredient found in corn starch or sugar cane. The scaffold had a rough surface, something they hoped would help stimulate the dental pulp to grow on it and become bone.
That’s what happened. The students were able to show that their work produced small clusters of cells that were growing on the scaffold, cells that were capable of maturing into bone. This could be used to create dental implants to replace damaged teeth, and, according to Alan Tan, to repair other injuries:
“We used dental pulp stem cells so that we could regenerate bones in various parts of our body so for example we could fix bones in your jaw and tibia and other places.”
The beauty of this approach is that the scaffold and bone could be implanted in, say, the mouth and then as the scaffold disintegrates the new bone would be left in place.
While they didn’t take the top prize (a $100,000 scholarship) they did have to see off some serious competition from nearly 1,800 other student project submissions to win a Team scholarship award.
The students say they learned a lot working together, and encouraged other high school students who are interested in science to take part in competitions like this one.
Sid Bommakanti “Both me, Alan and our other partner are interested in medicine as a whole and we wanted to make an impact on other people’s lives.”
Alan Tan: “I would say get into science early. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and talk to professors, talk to people, competitions like this are beneficial because they encourage students to get out there and interact with the real world.”
CIRM is helping students like these through its Stem Cell Education Portal, which includes the materials and resources that teachers need to teach high school students about stem cells. All the materials meet both state and federal guidelines.