Once Canada-born Eva Vertes got hooked at science at the tender age of 10, she wasted no time in setting out to make a difference in the very adult world of medicine. By age 15, she had uncovered properties of a chemical compound called RPI-069 that could lead to a groundbreaking new treatment for patients afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease.
Born in Toronto in 1986, Vertes claims to have been disinterested in reading until she picked up the book “The Hot Zone” by Richard Preston, a nonfiction account of the evolution of the Ebola virus outbreaks that occurred in Africa starting in the 1970s. She was captivated; she knew right then that she wanted to be a doctor one day. As she learned more and more about the medical field, she became interested in conducting her own experiments. At age 15 she began research into the impairment of the nervous system of fruit flies as part of her high school science fair project. This work evolved, however, into a much more important discovery.
As Vertes explained in her abstract for the work she eventually presented at the fair, when a patient is affected by Alzheimer's, neurons in the brain are lost at a rapid rate due to programmed cell death, or apoptosis. Apoptosis is induced primarily by beta-amyloid, a toxic protein fragment that accumulates in the brains of Alzheimer patients. Vertes theorized that preventing this kind of apoptosis may fight Alzheimer's; and purine-derivatives, she noted, had been shown to have trophic and protective effects in a variety of cell types.
Thus, Vertes hypothesized that a purine-derivative known as RPI-069 could protect neuronal-type cells against pathogenic stimuli (beta-amyloid) involved in Alzheimer's development. Through a series of experiments she tested her theory and showed that the RPI-069 indeed was able to reduce the apoptosis by an average of 60 percent.
With this discovery, Vertes won first prize in Canada’s 2002 Bay Area Science & Engineering Fair. Later that year, she placed first in the “Medicine and Health” category at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Louisville, Kentucky, where she was one of 1,200 competitors from around the world. She won a $30,000 scholarship and $13,000 in cash.
Vertes spent the next year working on finishing her high school diploma while also conducting research in a laboratory at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. Shortly thereafter, Vertes accepted an invitation to spend a year continuing her research at the University of Chieti in Italy. Upon her return, she entered Princeton University to study molecular biology.
Vertes has earned her M.D. and is currently a resident at the University of Florida’s Department of Pathology, Immunity and Laboratory medicine in Gainesville, Florida. It may be some time before RPI-069 is tested in clinical trials; in the meantime, Vertes is hard at work on research that aims to determine the role of stem cells in cancer.