December 16, 2005

High schooler’s research findings lauded

Featured Image

High school senior Xue Feng, right, and Maureen Gannon, Ph.D., look at pancreatic cells in Gannon’s lab.
photo by Dana Johnson

High schooler’s research findings lauded

At first blush Xue Feng seems like any other 17-year-old high school senior. At least until she launches into a discussion about the role of a protein called Foxm1b in pancreatic beta cells, the focus of a biomedical research project she completed at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

The research, mentored by Maureen A. Gannon, Ph.D., assistant professor of Molecular Physiology & Biophysics, and Hongjie Zhang, M.D., Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow, landed Feng in the National Finals of the Siemens Westinghouse Competition in Math, Science & Technology, held earlier this month in New York City.

Feng's findings could advance understanding of type 2 diabetes and may even point to a new therapeutic approach for treating the disease.

Feng was one of six individuals competing for the $100,000 grand prize, which was awarded to Michael Viscardi from San Diego for his work towards a solution to a mathematical problem first formulated in the 19th century.

Six teams of two to three students each also participated in the competition. Each individual and team presented posters, made oral presentations, and were questioned in private sessions by a panel of judges. Feng won a $10,000 scholarship.

“It was an incredible experience, and great fun to meet all of these really intelligent students from all over the country who were so passionate about what they were doing,” Feng said. The students enjoyed bowling and golfing at Chelsea Piers and being “pampered, she said.

Feng joined Gannon's research group as part of an elective course offered by Martin Luther King Academic Magnet School in Nashville. Through the course, students spend eight to 12 hours per week doing research in Vanderbilt laboratories.

The class gathers at MLK for weekly updates from each student. Students are expected to complete a written proposal at the beginning of the course, make poster presentations, and submit their research findings for publication.

Feng's findings were published in part in the Proceedings of the Tennessee Junior Academy of Science.

Gannon agreed to serve as a mentor three years ago and was delighted to welcome Feng as her second student last year, she said. Feng happened into Gannon's laboratory at an opportune time. The investigators had just made a surprising discovery: deletion of a gene called Foxm1b from the pancreas of mice did not cause a developmental defect in the pancreas as they expected. Instead, the mice had completely normal pancreases at birth, but then developed diabetes as they aged.

“Part of Xue's project was to try to figure out why these animals became diabetic,” Gannon said.

Feng used histological techniques, including fluorescence staining, to compare the pancreatic cells of mice lacking Foxm1b in the pancreas with normal mice. She found that the beta cells did not divide at the same rate in the Foxm1b knockout mice. The knockout mice failed to increase their mass of beta cells appropriately with age and weight, leading to inadequate insulin production and diabetes.

In human beings, beta cell mass normally increases in overweight and obese individuals to compensate for peripheral insulin resistance, Gannon said. People who progress to type 2 diabetes aren't able to expand or sustain an expanded beta cell mass, and “Foxm1b may be one of the genes involved in that process,” Gannon said. The group's studies are the first of Foxm1b's role in the pancreas.

It might be possible to use Foxm1b to induce an increase in beta cell mass as a therapeutic approach for patients with type 2 diabetes, Feng said.

“That's where we're going in the future with this,” Gannon added.

Feng's future may involve Stanford University, which she chose for its strong emphasis on undergraduate research. She is waiting to hear on her “single choice early action” application. She doesn't hesitate about her desire to do research and has tentatively chosen Biomedical Engineering as a major. Science, she admits, is in her genes: her father Bibo Feng is a research and development engineer at Vanderbilt's Free Electron Laser, and her mother Jun Zhou is a research assistant at the Medical Center.