What started four years ago with a Laguna Beach High School student's interest in snakes, coupled with a teacher's research, has turned into an ongoing project on the cusp of a breakthrough.
Students in science teacher Steve Sogo's Advanced Chemical Research class are developing a synthetic antivenom that would treat the deadliest snake bites.
The students, all seniors, built on work their predecessors began four years ago, using toxins from the Mozambique Spitting Cobra as their template.
A European chemistry organization noticed their accomplishments, and the Royal Society of Chemistry published an article on the first crop of students' findings in late May in the journal Chemical Connections. A month later, Chemistry World magazine wrote an article detailing their feats.
Students in Sogo's class last year, including Morgan Lebby, Brock Csira and Spencer Anderson, developed a group of nanoparticles — plastic compounds small enough for the body to process and excrete — that could measure how well an antivenom particle binds to a toxin, according to Sogo.
"The nanoparticles kind of fit together like puzzles with the target protein from the venom, allowing nanoparticles to function as antivenom," according to Samantha Piszkiewicz, one of the first students to work on the project four years ago.
The antivenom is one of several projects on which ACR students can work. Other assignments included analyzing DNA and experimenting with cancer treatments.
Sogo thinks the combination of data and an intriguing idea made the antivenom project appealing to other chemists.
"The idea is instantly gripping, that we could make something work better," Sogo said. "We had many experiments that worked well and had convincing data that these nanoparticles work effectively."
Sogo worked with nanoparticles that could recognize melittin, a toxin in bee venom, while Piszkiewicz thought it was interesting that snakes often have enzymes in their venom that can kill people by clotting their blood, she wrote in an email.
Piszkiewicz, who graduated from Laguna Beach High School in 2010 and is a senior at Cal Tech studying chemistry, wondered whether the same enzyme could treat someone who needs their blood to clot, such as a hemophiliac.
She and former classmates Evan Kirkbride, Nicolai Doreng-Stearns, Blake Henderson, Melissa Lenker, Erika Tang, Laura Kawashiri, Curtis Nichols and Sebastian Moore are named on the paper published in Chemical Connections.
The group created a group of nanoparticles that had the ability to protect red blood cells from cobra toxins, according to Sogo.
"In this sense, the antivenom was 'finished,' " Sogo wrote in an email. "We have not made any improvements to this original nanoparticle formulation. However, we don't yet know whether the nanoparticles will work to save the life of an animal. Therefore we cannot say the antivenom is truly 'finished.' "
Piszkiewicz explained how antivenom works by thinking of a cell as a balloon.
"Venom comes along and pops the balloon, releasing contents of the cell, including all of the hemoglobin (a protein that allows a red blood cell to transport oxygen throughout the circulatory system)," Piszkiewicz said. "You can separate all the intact cells from the popped cells.
"We were able to measure the amount of red color in the resulting solution and relate it to the number of cells which had been destroyed by the venom. The more of our nanoparticles we added, the fewer cells were popped by the venom. We were able to entirely prevent venom from destroying the cells."
Antivenom is traditionally formed from animals' blood, Sogo explained in a video about the antivenom project and the ACR class.
A researcher injects a horse or sheep with a toxin and harvests the animal's blood, which contains antibodies.
"The idea is very medieval," Sogo said.
Laguna Beach High School students bypassed the injection and formed an opaque liquid that doesn't need to be refrigerated, unlike traditional antivenom.
Sogo has not pursued a patent.
"Our reward is if people find it interesting," Sogo said. "The next step would be experiments with living animals, but that wouldn't be something done at the high school level. If someone was interested enough to find out, it could save the life of an animal."