In a classic demonstration that when it comes to scientific discovery, love and compassion may be far stronger motivators than profit, a 17-year-old Oregon high school student has become one of the finalists in the prestigious Siemens Science Competition. His achievement is nothing less than possibly inventing what the big pharmaceutical companies have been unable to or unwilling to invent – a non-addictive painkiller.
On one level, this story serves to contradict the image of today's teenagers as videogame and junk food-addicted slackers; this kid managed to make a significant contribution to science in his spare time. On another level, his discovery may reveal some essential flaws in the pharmaceutical industry itself – where is the impetus to create a non-addicting painkiller if you make your money from people becoming dependent on it? Sales of painkillers such as oxycodone (OxyContin) and hydrocodone increased 16-fold between 2000 and 2010, so what pharmaceutical giant wants to jeopardize that "cash cow?"
The teen was trying to help his mother, not make millions
Raghav Tripathi, a high school senior from Portland, Oregon, first started his research when his mother had a skiing accident and broke her leg. Her recovery was long and painful, but she didn't want to take prescription opiate-based painkillers because she was afraid of becoming addicted to them. So Tripathi started researching alternatives to prescription painkillers that worked, but weren't addictive.
His research led him to a natural compound called anandamide, which was first discovered in 1992 and whose name was derived from the Sanskrit word "ananda," meaning "bliss" or "delight." Anandamide (more formally N-arachidonoylethanolamine or AEA) is a neurotransmitter that is one of a family of brain chemicals called cannabinoids. It affects the same cannabinoid receptors in the brain that are sensitive to tetrahydrocannibinol or THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana, but that are also involved in other important brain functions, such as memory, eating, and sleep patterns.
Tripathi's research has indicated that by increasing anandamide levels in the body, we may be able to trigger its own pain-relieving mechanisms, and thus reduce our dependence on addictive painkillers. As he said in an interview with a local Portland TV station, "The end product will hopefully be some sort of pill, vaccine, maybe a spray or something that can be used by people who are suffering from pain."
Good job, Raghav
Although we have to wait for details until December 3rd, when Tripathi presents his full research to the Siemens Science Competition in Washington, D.C., the early "buzz" on his work seems to indicate that he's stumbled upon remarkable insights into how anandamide may work to suppress the sensations of pain in the brain. According to the president of the Siemens Foundation, Jeniffer Harper Taylor, Tripathi's research is high-quality, at the level of work being done by scientists with Ph.D. degrees. She said, "Think about a high school student doing research at that level, it’s just amazing."
If he wins the competition, the young teen will be able to continue his studies in style, because the Siemens Foundation will award him $100,000 in scholarship money. He's already been awarded a $3000 first prize in the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.
Because I have friends whose chronic pain keeps them dependent on OxyContin and other opiates, but who hate this dependence and some of the drug's side effects and hope for an alternative, I wish Raghav Tripathi nothing but the best, both in the competition and in his future research. The world desperately needs effective alternatives to the current crop of painkillers, and history has shown us that they are not likely to come from the established pharmaceutical industry. Perhaps they'll come from innovators like this remarkable young man.