News

Study shows stress hormone’s link to memory deficits, brain shrinkage

Dr. Sudha Seshadri was the senior author on the study. Courtesy Photo By Lauren Caruba, San Antonio ...

At 88, San Antonio’s ‘father of burn care’ isn’t stopping

Retired Col. Dr. Basil Pruitt at UT Health San Antonio last month, where he maintains an office.  Pruitt ...

News
Trinity freshman searches for cancer treatments
September 2, 2018

Nia Clements, freshman at Trinity University, is interested in finding cures and treatments for cancer. Several family members have suffered from the disease. Photo by Billy Calzada, Staff Photographer

By Lauren Caruba, Staff Writer, San Antonio Express-News

Since she was in elementary school, Nia Clements has been thinking about ways to treat cancer.

When she was in fifth grade, her grandfather was diagnosed with gastric cancer, an aggressive disease that shows few symptoms early on. He wasted away before her eyes, looking “like a skeleton,” Clements said, and died less than three months after diagnosis.

She was baffled by the dearth of treatment options and eventually resolved to study the disease, learning that it was an inflammatory condition that was linked to, and possibly caused by, certain bacteria. At the time, Clements was using East Indian sandalwood oil, both an antibacterial and anti-inflammatory agent, to treat her acne.

She made the connection — could the oil have any effect on cancer cells? By age 13, she was ready to test that question.

But there was a problem. She was far too young to work independently in a laboratory environment.

“I wanted to do it myself,” said Clements, now 18 and a freshman at Trinity University.

Undeterred, she managed to advance through several phases of preclinical research for a potential cancer treatment by partnering with scientists, all while managing her high school studies at Keystone School, a well-regarded private school in San Antonio.

Working with researchers from the Center of Innovative Drug Discovery, an initiative between UT Health San Antonio and the University of Texas at San Antonio, she was able to gauge the oil’s ability to withstand the human stomach’s inhospitable environment.

The next step was determining how the oil would interact with cancer cells and healthy cells. Based on analysis conducted in conjunction with UT Health San Antonio’s pharmacology department, Clements collected preliminary data showing the oil, at low concentrations, did indeed kill cancer cells — and spared healthy ones.

While Clements was still a high school freshman, her father, Ian Clements, was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma — the same illness her maternal grandmother had fought into remission when Clements was around 4 — and her mother, Diane Clements, received a breast cancer diagnosis.

Simultaneously, Nia Clements’ parents underwent treatment during her sophomore and junior years, when she was engrossed in her cancer research. Shortly after Diane Clements received radiation and a partial mastectomy, Nia Clements herself was diagnosed with a breast tumor that turned out to be benign. Ian Clements’ illness was prolonged, involving relapses and a STEM cell transplant.

Nia Clements juggled her schoolwork with hospital visits and hours in the research lab. Her passion for the project was fueled by her desire to have an effect on studying human disease and the deeply personal way in which cancer had come to touch her immediate family.

“Working on my research made me feel like I was making a difference to my parents and their sicknesses,” Clements said.

She wanted to understand how the oil killed the cancer cells, which led her to ion channels, proteins in cellular membranes that can be targeted for the development of therapeutic drugs. By then a sophomore, Clements began working with technology developed by the CytoBioscience company.

There, she also found a mentor in Susan Judge, who worked with the company and held an adjunct faculty position in UT Health San Antonio’s biochemistry department. Judge was also interested in ion channels and their use in treatment of neural diseases such as multiple sclerosis. She remembers, from her first meeting with Clements, how the girl had assiduously collected her findings into a binder “that must have been 2 inches deep.”

Judge guided and supervised Clements as she began working with CytoBioscience’s automated patch clamping system. The technology helped her pinpoint an ion channel, TRPM7-like, on the cancerous cells that was necessary for their survival but obstructed by the sandalwood oil, leading to their deaths. Clements’ preliminary research found that the oil affected breast, colon and oral cancer cells.

In doing this work, Clements was collaborating in a lab with senior investigators, Judge said, and even reached out to a senior researcher in South Korea whose work overlapped with hers. The research arrangement, Judge said, was “highly unusual,” one much more common for college-aged students. Clements, she said, demonstrated inquisitiveness and maturity beyond her years.

“For someone at a young high school age to be convinced that that’s what they want to do and driven enough to pull together ideas, to connect dots between an oil as a possible cancer treatment — I mean this is remarkable,” Judge said. “It’s amazing that she could do that.”

Despite her youth, Clements’ work was taken seriously. In 2016, after being awarded the Distinguished Scientist Award by the Cancer Therapy Research Center, she gave a presentation to a roomful of scientists and clinicians. Her father, in bed battling his illness, watched her speak over FaceTime.

“It lifts your spirits,” said Ian Clements, who works as an executive for a startup dermatology company. “Oh my god, my daughter can do this, and she’s this age? It gives you extra fight in what you’re going through.”

Clements’ work has garnered her attention at national science fairs. In 2016, she was one of 36 students to attend the White House Science Fair, where she met Bill Nye and former Vice President Joe Biden, talking with him shortly after his son had died of brain cancer.

Her senior year, she won $3,000 in the biomedical and health sciences category at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair and was named a scholar in the 2018 Regeneron Science Talent Search.

At Trinity, Clements lives in Entrepreneurship Hall, alongside other enterprising students hoping to form their own companies or produce their own products. She hopes to develop her research to the point where she can officially publish her findings, as well as start developing therapeutic products using the sandalwood oil, such as a mouthwash for patients with oral or throat cancer. Already, she carries with her a small glass jar filled with golden capsules containing doses of the pharmaceutical-grade oil.

“She’s running. She’s not stopping,” Judge said. “I’m delighted. I’m going to enjoy the next few years, sitting back and seeing how she evolves.”

 

Lauren Caruba covers several school districts, charter schools and private universities in the San Antonio and Bexar County area. Read her on our free site, mySA.com, and on our subscriber site, ExpressNews.com. | lcaruba@express-news.net | Twitter: @LaurenCaruba


Stay informed. Subscribe to BioMed SA news alerts.