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18-Year-Old Harvard Freshman Electrifies Scientists on Second Day of American Society for Exosomes and Microvesicles (ASEMV) 2017 Annual Meeting in Asilomar, California

On Monday, October 9, Indrani Das, an 18-year-old freshman at Harvard, electrified a crowd of 200 established scientists at the ASEMV 2017 Annual Meeting with the description of her exosome research that won the Regeneron 2017 United States Science Talent Search Grand Prize of $250,000 (this is the nation's oldest and most prestigious science and math competition for high school seniors--previous sponsors of the Talent Search were Westinghouse and Intel) (photo shows Indrani on the day her prize was awarded). Comments heard after Indrani’s Asilomar presentation included “brilliant,” “powerful,” “incredible.” Her winning project was titled “Exosomal MicroRNA-124s: Novel Translational Reactive Astrocyte Repair in Vitro.” Indrani’s early interest in neurodegenerative diseases and brain injury therapy had provided the impetus for her four-year high school study of exosomes as she had learned that these vesicles can pass through the blood-brain barrier and might perhaps be used to provide therapeutic cargo to sites of brain injury. She knew that stroke, traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease all cause the behavior of glial cells to change dramatically, in particular to cause a phenomenon called reactive astrogliosis. Healthy astrocytes take up glutamate, an essential excitatory neurotransmitter, from their surroundings, but, in reactive astrogliosis, this process breaks down and glutamate accumulates in the extracellular space where it can damage surrounding neurons. In fact, neurons die when exposed to the medium that reactive astrocytes are grown in. Indrani knew that the excitatory amino acid transporter EAAT2 is one of the major glutamate transporters expressed predominantly in astrocytes and is responsible for 90% of total glutamate uptake. She first hypothesized that perhaps a decrease in EAAT2 was responsible for the decline in glutamate uptake by reactive astrocytes. But her experiments indicated that EAAT2 expression was unchanged in these cells. However, the experiments did show that EAAT2 delocalized from the cell membrane in reactive astrocytes and Indrani wondered if perhaps this move from the membrane was somehow responsible for the glutamate buildup in the surrounding media. She then used exosomes isolated from astrocytes transfected with microRNA-124a to increase EAAT2 expression and to improve glutamate uptake in reactive astrocytes, and these changes were associated with increased neuron survival. Although Indrani suspects that the exosome treatment also caused EAAT2 to relocalize to the cell membrane, she has not yet demonstrated this. Future efforts should focus on trying to understand how miRNA-124a regulates EAAT2 expression in astrocytes, Indrani believes. Indrani did her prize-winning work at Bergen County Academies in Hackensack, New Jersey, and her mentor was Mrs. Donna Leonardi.

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