By Karen Billing
Think back to a junior high science fair: The obligatory mold project, probably a makeshift volcano or two, maybe the old standby of which laundry detergent works best. For her eighth grade science project, San Diego Jewish Academy’s Ali Tradonsky thought much, much bigger in studying chemotherapy’s effect on cancer cells using real, human tumors.
Tradonsky, now 15 and a freshman at the academy, was recently named a semifinalist in the national Society for Science and the Public’s middle school science competition. This year’s 300 semifinalists were selected from 1,943 entrants from across the country.
“These talented young scientists are already stepping up to meet the great scientific challenges of tomorrow,” said Elizabeth Marincola, Society for Science president. “Their work will have a real impact on generations to come.”
Tradonsky, who lives in La Jolla, found out Sept. 3 about her accomplishment when it was posted online. She was sitting alongside her mother.
“It was so unexpected. We jumped and screamed and then had to race out to soccer practice,” said Tradonsky, who plays competitively for Nott’s Forest in Clairemont.
Tradonsky was inspired to take on her ambitious topic after watching her mother Sharon go through chemotherapy for lymphoma when she was in the fifth grade.
She vividly remembers Wednesdays, the day when her mom would receive chemo and family friends would bring over meals for the family.
“She was so emotionally drained and went straight to sleep,” said Tradonsky of her mother who is now cancer-free.
Usually chemotherapy is infused into the bloodstream and reaches the cancer through diffusion. A lot of the side effects are the result of the chemo going to every normal cell. Tradonsky’s quest was to ask what would happen if chemotherapy were injected directly into the tumor, would it be as effective at causing cell death. Additionally, Tradonsky wanted to find out if it reduced those awful side effects she watched her mother experience.
Her lab partner on the project was none other than her mom, pathologist Dr. Sharon Mair.
“She is very motivated, very driven, very idealistic. She is really, truly passionate about what she’s doing,” said Mair. “Every day I count my blessings. She’s really as close to perfect as it gets.”
At Dr. Mair’s lab in La Mesa, they often evaluate tumors. A pathologist only needs a certain amount of the tumor to make their diagnosis, so everything that is left over can be used for research like Tradonsky’s.
For her testing, Tradonsky took two equally divided tumors and treated one by injection and one by soaking in a chemotherapy solution. After exposing the samples equally, she put them under the microscope to compare cell death.
Mair said she was impressed with the way her daughter worked in the lab.
“She hit a lot of roadblocks and had to reevaluate,” said Mair, “but she was not discouraged at any point. The more difficult it got, the more she stepped up to the plate.”
“I had to want it so badly because there was so much to learn,” Tradonsky said.
The chemotherapy injection technique is not one that is conventionally used in cancer treatment, Mair said. In the rare case, injection will be used on brain tumors as the brain’s protective blood barrier makes it harder for chemotherapy to defuse there.
There have been no published studies regarding injected chemotherapy on tumors, Mair said, careful to note that Tradonsky’s project was limited in that they only studied 13 cases and that the tumors were not studied in living subjects.
“It’s just great knowledge to have; I understand everything inside and out completely,” Tradonsky said. “Of course, I still have so much to learn.”
And learn she will: As a freshman, Tradonsky is taking both biology honors and chemistry honors in preparation for the highly competitive Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, the high school level of the Society for Science competition.