Byram Hills High School senior Brent Perlman has been named a finalist in the prestigious Regeneron Science Talent Search, honored for his biological engineering research with photosynthesis that could lead to therapeutic treatments for heart attacks, strokes and cancer or the creation of organs in a lab.
Brent, a student in the school’s three-year science research program, was one of 40 finalists announced today by Regeneron and the Society for Science & the Public. The students move on to the final round in Washington, where they will compete for $1.8 million in awards in March.
“I’m beyond excited about being named a finalist,” Brent said. “It’s thrilling to be recognized by such a prestigious competition, and I am thankful for the opportunity to share my research with such a large audience. I’m eager for my work to be displayed in Washington D.C., as this recognition increases the chances that its applications could one day help to improve the lives of people suffering from a variety of debilitating diseases.”
“I would have never been able to complete my research or receive this honor without the help of my mentors at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Dr. Glenn Gaudette and Dr. Joshua Gershlak, or my science research teacher Stephanie Greenwald. I’m so grateful for all of their guidance and support throughout the past three years.”
Principal Christopher Walsh offered his congratulations.
“We are so proud of Brent for this accomplishment,” he said. “He has dedicated so much of himself to this work and it is great to see it acknowledged on such a large scale. His work has the potential to have such a huge impact on society and yet he is still as humble as ever.”
The 40 finalists will undergo a rigorous judging process, interact with leading scientists, show their research to the public and meet members of Congress during their time in Washington from March 7 to 13. Each will receive at least $25,000 for participating in the week; those who finish in the top 10 receive prizes that range from $40,000 to $250,000. The top awards will be announced on March 12.
Brent’s research involved photosynthesis, the process plants use to produce oxygen and sugar from sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide. He induced photosynthesis in human cells for the first time by isolating chloroplasts, the photosynthetic components of plant cells, from baby spinach leaves. He then cultured these isolated chloroplasts with human cells, which incorporated the chloroplasts, and subsequently conducted photosynthesis.
The ability of human cells to photosynthesize allows them to generate oxygen, which they are normally unable to produce. The oxygen produced by these photosynthetic cells promotes healthy tissue and organ development and growth, and can help treat different diseases.
Brent's research has applications in the engineering of functional organs in a lab; the treatment of heart attacks, strokes, and cancer; the delivery of biopharmaceuticals to affected human cells in the body; and even space travel.
“Brent is a true scientist,” said Stephanie Greenwald, director of the Byram Hills Dr. Robert Pavlica Authentic Science Research Program. “From the moment I met him he asked thoughtful questions, took enormous risks with his work and did all of this with great kindness and appreciation for those around him. We are all so proud of his accomplishment.”
Brent has a pending patent for his process of creating photosynthetic human cells, and plans to continue his research in the fall at the University of Pennsylvania, where he will study in the Vagelos Program in Life Sciences & Management.
“My dream is to one day create my own biotech start-up based on my research into human photosynthesis. Maybe we will all be green with chloroplasts in the next 20 years!” Brent said.
Brent, 17, was one of seven Byram Hills seniors named as scholars in the first round of the talent search, which bills itself as the nation’s oldest and most prestigious science and math competition for high school seniors. Nearly 2,000 students entered the competition.
In the 30 years the school has competed in the Science Talent Search, Byram Hills has had 111 scholars; 20 of them, including Brent, have gone on to become finalists.
Winners of the talent search have gone on to win top science and math honors, including 13 Nobel Prizes and 13 National Medals of Science.