Valley Catholic senior explores cutting edge of stroke and addiction research

by: JAIME VALDEZ - Valley Catholic senior Yamini Naidu just finished an internship with the National Institute on Drug Abuse's intramural research program in Baltimore, Md.It only takes a few minutes with Yamini Naidu to realize the Valley Catholic High School senior is hard wired to study science and chemistry.

Beyond her obvious aptitude and passion, however, it took a particularly personal inspiration to lead her to award-winning neuroscience research in the fields of stroke and drug addiction. When a beloved uncle living in India died after suffering a series of strokes, the articulate, unassuming adolescent started searching for answers.

“I visited him in India, in a nursing home,” said Naidu. “It was hard for me to see him in that condition. I realized I needed to contribute something in the field of neurology.”

It wasn’t long before that drive — to transform her middle-aged uncle’s untimely demise to something positive and encouraging — took a firm hold.

Although her interest started with the neurological factors behind strokes, Naidu’s intrigue increased when she discovered the parallels in the mechanisms — dopamine receptors, specifically — involving stroke and methamphetamine addiction.

In May 2011, she took first place in biochemistry for her project at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles, and received a third-place award the same month for a related project with the National Institute of Drug Abuse and National Institutes of Health. Last spring, Naidu presented her findings to NIDA researchers. Not one to rest on her laurels, Naidu spent the past summer working with Dr. Xavier Guitart in a NIDA intramural research program in Baltimore, Md.

Bonding issues

Her research is part of recent groundwork in developing compounds — now the subject of pending patents — for novel medications in the treatment of methamphetamine addiction.

Using molecular modeling software that incorporates three-dimensional structural illustrations and computer animations, Naidu focused on a common link in dopamine receptors — called a heteromer. The bonding occurs in the brains of patients suffering from conditions including Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia as well as cocaine and meth addiction.

“With Parkinson’s, some people just have this irregularity in the reception of dopamine receptors,” she said. “The goal is to try and develop a medication specifically to bind to heteromer — to try to break them up and lead to treatment.”

Given the current lack of approved medications to treat meth addiction, the implications of Naidu’s research in understanding neurological trauma — as noted through her recent accolades — are promising indeed.

“There is no (fully effective) treatment right now,” she said. “Meth causes stroke in young abusers, or makes them more susceptible to having a stroke. Still, the link is unknown.

“I think the project and research are very relevant in society,” she added. “Drug addiction doesn’t get the same level of attention that heart disease and diabetes do. That’s why this research is very exciting and could lead to treatment of several neurological disorders.”

Naidu is moving her research from the computer-based molecular modeling into the more specifically targeted cellular level, testing compounds and drugs for their effectiveness.

“I hope I can continue my research in this field,” she said, noting she plans to intern again next summer with the JAIME VALDEZ - Yamini Naidus research is part of recent groundwork in developing compounds for novel medications in the treatment of methamphetamine addiction.

On the right track

Dr. Xavier Guitart at NIDA/NIH in Baltimore, Md., said the Beaverton resident distinguished herself in an area of neuroscience that’s rife with possibilities for exploration.

“Yamini is an extremely clever and passionate person who has already shown her capacity and skills in the always complicated — and not always idyllic — world of science,” Guitart said. “I was really surprised by her capacity to run experiments by herself just a few days after she joined the lab, and I’ve known many students in my 30-year professional life.”

Although Naidu hasn’t yet chosen where she wants to further her education, Guitart indicated she has the skills and drive to write her own ticket.

“Her research was completely original and well performed,” he said.

“Based on my professional and personal knowledge of Yamini, I can anticipate that she will accomplish high standards in college and in her professional life if she finally decides to devote all her capabilities to basic and applied science.”

Back to class

Michael Seiwald, who teaches science and chemistry at Valley Catholic, has known Naidu since she was in seventh grade. Her explorations into the cellular mechanisms involving addiction, he noted, is indicative of where neuroscience study is headed.

“The premise is great,” he said. “To understand molecular activity in a living cell — we’re just starting to get there. What she’s done, if we can do this, shows how we would approach that. I think that’s the way medicine and science is going to go.”

While one might assume Naidu — after her internships, research and awards — might find the high school classroom a bit pedestrian, Seiwald said the curiosity she exhibits elevates the level of classroom discussion.

“She’s always interested, always engaged. She wants to know more,” he said. “She doesn’t always get everything easily, but she works hard at it. That’s where she gets to where she is.”

Naidu, whose father is an attorney and whose mother works for a software company in the Beaverton area, said she’s open minded about school and career paths. Ultimately, though, she’d like to give back to the community that’s brought her this far.

“I don’t know what’s in store for the future, but I do want to come back,” she said. “Beaverton has given me all the opportunities I’ve had, and I’m so grateful for that.”

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