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Laguna students get synthetic antivenom work published

'The idea is instantly gripping, that we could make something work better,' said science teacher Steve Sogo.

July 19, 2013|By Bryce Alderton
  • Recent Laguna Beach High graduates Morgan Lebby, left, and Brock Csira, have continued to work on developing an antivenom to target snake bites with science teacher Steve Sogo, middle, who has supervised their work through the process.
Recent Laguna Beach High graduates Morgan Lebby, left,… (Don Leach, Coastline…)

What started four years ago with a Laguna Beach High School student's interest in snakes, coupled with a teacher's research, has turned into an ongoing project on the cusp of a breakthrough.

Students in science teacher Steve Sogo's Advanced Chemical Research class are developing a synthetic antivenom that would treat the deadliest snake bites.

The students, all seniors, built on work their predecessors began four years ago, using toxins from the Mozambique Spitting Cobra as their template.

A European chemistry organization noticed their accomplishments, and the Royal Society of Chemistry published an article on the first crop of students' findings in late May in the journal Chemical Connections. A month later, Chemistry World magazine wrote an article detailing their feats.

Students in Sogo's class last year, including Morgan Lebby, Brock Csira and Spencer Anderson, developed a group of nanoparticles — plastic compounds small enough for the body to process and excrete — that could measure how well an antivenom particle binds to a toxin, according to Sogo.

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"The nanoparticles kind of fit together like puzzles with the target protein from the venom, allowing nanoparticles to function as antivenom," according to Samantha Piszkiewicz, one of the first students to work on the project four years ago.

The antivenom is one of several projects on which ACR students can work. Other assignments included analyzing DNA and experimenting with cancer treatments.

Sogo thinks the combination of data and an intriguing idea made the antivenom project appealing to other chemists.

"The idea is instantly gripping, that we could make something work better," Sogo said. "We had many experiments that worked well and had convincing data that these nanoparticles work effectively."

Sogo worked with nanoparticles that could recognize melittin, a toxin in bee venom, while Piszkiewicz thought it was interesting that snakes often have enzymes in their venom that can kill people by clotting their blood, she wrote in an email.

Piszkiewicz, who graduated from Laguna Beach High School in 2010 and is a senior at Cal Tech studying chemistry, wondered whether the same enzyme could treat someone who needs their blood to clot, such as a hemophiliac.

She and former classmates Evan Kirkbride, Nicolai Doreng-Stearns, Blake Henderson, Melissa Lenker, Erika Tang, Laura Kawashiri, Curtis Nichols and Sebastian Moore are named on the paper published in Chemical Connections.

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