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RIVER HILLS - Without the knowledge of her parents or teachers, a University School of Milwaukee senior spent six months of her spare time developing an algorithm that searches for pharmacological chaperones existing in FDA-approved drugs.

When Hajira Fuad finished her study, her findings not only impressed her teachers but also the national science community. She was one of 300 students selected out of 1,700 applicants to be named a Regeneron Science Talent Search Scholar, which is funded and produced by the Society for Science and the Public. Fuad's project is titled “Computational discovery of pharmacological chaperones to rectify protein misfolding using a novel support vector machine classifier."

For those whose eyes glazed over in the middle of that title, Fuad explains:

“Proteins are complex structures and it’s common for them to mis-fold, or not fold properly. When that happens, it can cause a lot of problems, including Alzheimer’s disease. We know that curcumin acts as a pharmacological chaperone by binding to the protein that’s involved in Alzheimer’s and helping it fold properly. So I wrote a program that searches a database of existing FDA-approved drugs to find those containing pharmacological chaperones that are structurally similar to curcumin, but may be currently used to treat other, non-Alzheimer’s related illnesses.”

After teaching herself the JavaScript computer language, Fuad developed an algorithm that searched approximately 1,300 drugs and found 20 drugs with the highest probability to contain chaperones that are structurally similar to those found in curcumin. Of those 20 drugs, six were found to perform well in Alzheimer’s models and dementia animal models.

“The results of my study proved my theory that structurally similar molecules will have similar biological functions,” said Fuad.

Fuad said her findings can potentially shave years off of drug research, not to mention millions of dollars in research and development costs.

“That’s the beauty of drug repurposing,” said Fuad. “These drugs are already FDA-approved so they could get to those in need much faster.”

In addition to Alzheimer’s, the algorithm can be used to repurpose pharmaceuticals for other protein mis-folding diseases like cancer and Parkinson’s.

Fuad, of Mequon, worked on this project in her free time over the course of six months, and she said she submitted her project without the knowledge of, or assistance from, anyone at USM or her parents.

“When they found out I was named a semifinalist, they were pretty shocked and excited,” said Fuad. “They were wondering what I was spending so much time working on.”

Fuad's science teacher, Robert Juranitch, was also proud of her accomplishments.

“In class, Hajira turns a keen eye to every topic, every day. In research, this is a directly transferable skill that obviously served Hajira well throughout her scientific investigation,” he said. “I am glad that the STS review board was able to recognize her dedication and scientific originality as it is something I see in class every day.”

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