MILLBURN, NJ – Rachel Okrent has a bubbly laugh, a long ponytail tied with a ribbon, and play rehearsal to get to. She bakes cupcakes she says are “legit.” She has college plans, a twin sister, and lots of friends. Wearing jeans, sneakers and a t-shirt, she’s a typical high school student in almost every way.

Except for the research she’s doing on treating lung cancer.

Okrent is a semi-finalist in the Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology. She is one of 300 semifinalists in this year’s competition, which had an unprecedented 1,541 projects submitted.

Okrent’s project studies the effect of using a combination of two FDA-approved drugs to successfully combat one of the most common forms of lung cancer. The goal of this research was to identify the final mediator in the signaling pathway, which if targeted, could restore sensitivity to a molecule called erlotinib by disallowing downstream mutation.

From this characterization, Trifluoperazine hydrochloride (TFP), an FDA-approved antipsychotic, presented itself as a viable treatment, Okrent explained. After both experiments on cells and mice, it was determined that TFP was not only more effective than erlotinib, but the using the two agents together was better than either alone. These results suggest that the rational combination of two FDA approved drugs can be used to treat patients suffering from a high percentage of lung cancer, she said.

“A lot of times people think of cancer as defined by the region it’s in, like breast cancer,” Okrent said. “But cancer is more effectively identified by the way it starts. When an object is broken, you need to know how it was broken in order to fix it.”

Okrent is a student of Dr. Paul Gilmore in the Millburn High School Science Research course, a three-year program that begins in the sophomore year, and is designed to offer students an opportunity to perform scientific research and participate in the community of science research and scholarship as part of their high school experience. After identifying a research topic and obtaining a mentor at an outside university or research lab, students must write a 20-page scientific paper and enter their research into local, state and/or national competitions.

Okrent has been working with mentor Goutham Narla, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Genetics and Genomic Sciences at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine whose laboratory focuses on the identification and characterization of the genes and pathways involved in cancer metastasis. 

While she started with a focus on breast cancer, Okrent said she switched to lung cancer when she met Dr. Narla.

“They are very much related,” she said.

Okrent, who is a co-author on several abstracts and two papers in the lab she’s been working with, said she has always wanted to be a medical doctor, but now is thinking about getting an MD and a PhD as she really enjoys the research.

Gilmore said Okrent’s being named a Siemens semi-finalist is no small feat.

“Because this competition focuses on the ‘hard’ sciences, and does not pull from as large a field as some of the other well-known science competitions, it is an impressive feat to make it to the semi-finalist round, especially in a year with a record number of entries,” he said.

He added that the vast majority of students who come out of the school’s science research course end up working in the sciences in some capacity.

“We have no books,” Gilmore said. “We don’t read books as they’re a summation of something that was done a long time ago. These students get out there and talk with people about what they’re doing right now.”

He said that he sees students come in as nervous sophomores and by the time they’re through the program, they are able to present their research materials to a variety of audiences.

“It’s really a transformative class,” he said.