Westview senior recognized at national conference for painkiller research

by: JONATHAN HOUSE - Westview High School senior Raghav Tripathi displays part of the research that earned him sixth place in the 2012 Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology in Washington, D.C. Many successful students credit parents for inspiring them to create and innovate. It’s fewer, however, who can channel the effects of a mother’s skiing accident into award-winning science research.

After his mom broke a leg while skiing on Mount Hood a few years ago, Raghav Tripathi, a Westview High School senior, was frustrated when she was unable to alleviate her discomfort with commonly used painkillers.

“She couldn’t take any pain meds because of the side effects,” he says of ibuprofen, aspirin or more powerful prescription medications. “She had to suffer the pain of a broken leg.”

As his facility for biochemistry increased at Stoller Middle School and later at Westview, Tripathi says he set his sights on “how to make a new type of painkiller that operates more naturally.”

This year, Tripathi’s adversity-rooted instincts hit paydirt.

Chosen from 2,500 students across the country — and 93 from the region — as a regional finalist in the Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology, Tripathi presented his findings at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., in November. Taking first place, he progressed to the national finals on Dec. 4 at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he placed sixth and received a $10,000 scholarship.

“It was pretty amazing,” he says. “There were a lot of amazing people doing research on a lot of cool things. It felt really cool when, after the whole thing (I realized) I was making this thing no one else in the world had thought about (other than) theoretically.”

Tripathi has applied for a patent for his pain medication, and his findings were published on Wednesday in PLOS One, an online, peer-reviewed journal. The research focuses on anandamide, a naturally occurring neurotransmitter compound that harnesses the body’s built-in processes to relieve pain.

“When the body gets a paper cut, you don’t need to take any painkillers,” Tripathi explains. “The body releases them naturally. Anandamide is a naturally occurring compound that kills the body’s own pain. People with acute pain, when they get hurt, the body releases it naturally and helps slow the pain.”

New horizons

As unlikely as it would seem, the soft-spoken 17-year-old appears to be forging a path that other, more experienced researchers may have neglected. Most anandamide research has focused on how the compound is released rather than increasing its concentration.

“Nobody’s really made drugs today that increase (production of) anandamide,” he says. “Painkillers introduce a foreign substance into the body,” while his research “triggers the body to release more of its natural painkiller.”

As a sophomore and junior at Westview, Tripathi was mentored by Bred Helsel, a Westview High advanced placement science teacher. With a solid biochemistry background, Tripathi dug into his anandamide research last summer at Stony Brook University in New York with the Siemens Fellowship’s Mentors Program. He adapted one of the instructor’s research techniques to his own project.

“He helped with how to progress with the idea,” Tripathi says. “His techniques with cancer and tuberculosis I applied to my field.”

Tripathi credits Helsel with going out of his way to nurture his interest in biochemistry, even as his scientific goals grew beyond the regular curriculum.

“He helped me a lot, especially with chemistry,” Tripathi says. “It’s especially impressive, in such a big public school, that Mr. Helsel was able to take time out of his day to help me.”

Clearly impressed with his former student, Helsel claims only minimal credit for Tripathi’s progress.

“I helped with some of the crude steering, what bearing to go on,” the instructor says. “It’s amazing to think of a whole new class of painkilling type drugs based off of a summer research project.”

Some of his students are clearly poised for greater strides in science and biochemistry.

“I’m just blown away by what some of the kids here are doing. I did nothing close to this until my junior year in college,” he says. “This is pretty much graduate-level stuff.”by: JONATHAN HOUSE - Raghav Tripathi talks with science teacher Brad Helsel last Friday about his research.

Hitting the big leagues

Tripathi’s fellow students at the recent Siemens competitions — most of whom came from private schools — were surprised to learn of his educational background.

“They were amazed I was able to find the resources I needed at public schools,” he says, adding he appreciated the level of respect judging professors at both competitions showed students.

“Even though they devoted their lives to research and are 10, 20 or 30 years older, them speaking to me as if I were doing research of their caliber, that was pretty amazing,” he says.

Born in Texas and raised in the Bethany area, Tripathi explains his mother’s aversion to pain medication — causing gastrointestinal and other discomforts — comes from her native India and East Asian culture.

“She’s always had a philosophy about not taking medication unless it’s entirely needed. She wasn’t sure why they occurred, but she opted to take no medication at all,” he says. “Now she’s fine.”

In this whirlwind year of research and recognition, Tripathi — who hasn’t yet decided where to attend college — has learned to appreciate the guidance and encouragement he received early on at Westview.

“Reach out and find teachers. They’re really willing to help you,” he advises. “That’s what I’ve found in the last four years here.”

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