Teen Researcher Seeks a Better Way to Treat Tuberculosis

In a Johns Hopkins chemical engineering lab, Britni Lonesome learned to fabricate and test polymer disks that release a medicine used to treat tuberculosis. Photo by Will Kirk/JHU  


While still a senior in high school, a Baltimore teenager toiled 10 hours a week in a Johns Hopkins University engineering lab, helping to develop a new drug delivery system that could someday reduce tuberculosis deaths in impoverished nations.

Britni Lonesome, 18, who enters the university this fall with her tuition covered by Johns Hopkins' Baltimore Scholars program, has already received local and national recognition for her work on the tuberculosis drug project. Earlier this year, she received a first-place award from the Maryland Society of Clinical and Lab Scientists at the Baltimore Science Fair and a gold medal in chemistry at the NAACPs ACT-SO (Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics) state competition. During the ACT-SO national finals in July, she collected the bronze medal in chemistry.

These awards recognized Lonesomes work in fabricating and conducting lab tests on polymer implants designed to dispense medication continuously for a three-month period. If these implants prove to be effective in humans, they could replace the four pills that tuberculosis patients now must swallow every day for up to nine months. That kind of pill-taking regimen can be a real challenge for people in Third World countries, Lonesome said. A dime-size implant that slowly releases its medication over several months would be much easier for them to handle. And it could save lives.

The project is important because tuberculosis is the second-most common major infectious disease, just behind AIDS. The disease infects about 9 million people annually, killing nearly 2 million every year.

Lonesome contributed to the drug implant research in the lab of Justin Hanes, an associate professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. Under the supervision of graduate student Matthew Durst, Lonesome learned to produce polymer disks impregnated with isoniazid, a drug used to treat tuberculosis. She then conducted labs tests to measure the amount of the drug that would likely be released to the patient over a 30-day period. She discovered that, contrary to what one might have expected, a lower concentration of the drug in the disk led to a more consistent release of the medication. Higher concentrations led to inconsistent release rates. Hanes said Lonesomes results will be incorporated in an upcoming journal article focusing on the teams work, and she will be credited as a co-author.

Hanes describes Lonesome as the latest in a series of talented high school students who have made valuable contributions to his work while honing their own science skills before entering college.

In 1999, when Sally Kutzer, who teaches the Senior Research Practicum class at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, a Baltimore city high school, first asked Hanes to add one of her students to his lab team, the Johns Hopkins researcher had a few concerns. Im always wary of anyone who would enter my lab, he said. Its an environment that requires maturity and responsibility. But the first of Sallys high school students who came through convinced me that this was not a waste of time.

That student, Craig Turner, won the grand prize in physical science at the Baltimore Science Fair and was a finalist at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Since, then, Kutzer has placed dozens of other Poly students in local university science and engineering labs. Among the most recent was Joi Hayes, who worked in a Johns Hopkins tissue engineering lab and won this years biology gold medal in the national ACT-SO competition. She will attend the University of Virginia.

This fall, of the 20 students registered for Kutzers high school class, 16 will work in Johns Hopkins engineering, biology, chemistry, medical and public health labs. The majority of them do their research projects at Johns Hopkins, Kutzer said. The reason is that the Hopkins professors are eager to take these students on. And its a big help to the students in our program. Many of them have never been in a university lab. When they meet these professors, it helps them build up a valuable network of contacts.

Added Hanes: For some of them, its kind of an introduction to a new world. In some cases, high school students who are from underprivileged families or who are part of ethnic groups that are underrepresented in science and engineering will feel more comfortable applying to Johns Hopkins after spending a year in one of our labs.

That was the case with Britni Lonesome. During her junior year in high school, she heard about the lab partnership program. I was interested in chemical engineering, she said. I wanted to go to John Hopkins, and this was a chance to do research there. When I met Dr. Hanes, he told me what he was doing in his lab, and I didnt understand any of it. But it wasnt discouraging. I knew it would be challenging, but I wasnt intimidated.

Lonesome was introduced to Hanes lab team and directed to read at least 20 journal articles related to the drug delivery project. During a subsequent lab team meeting, Hanes recalls, Britni gave a very impressive first presentation. She came up to speed very quickly, and she analyzed the literature very well.

This fall, Lonesome will enter Johns Hopkins as a freshman through the universitys Baltimore Scholars Program, which provides full-tuition scholarships to graduates of BaltimoreCity public schools who are accepted into the university's undergraduate programs. She plans to continue working in Hanes lab to advance the tuberculosis implant research. The disks used in her previous experiments are non-biodegradable and would have to be removed after the treatment is finished. Lonesome may try to replicate her work with a polymer that could dissolve harmlessly in the body after its work is done. She also may participate in animal testing, which must be completed before the disks could be used in humans.

Source: Johns Hopkins