Could a High School Student's HIV Cure Actually Work?

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Above, from left to right: Top: Jim Williams, Maddox Linneman, Sam Pannek, Chase Harris  Bottom : Paige Bently, Lexie Adams, Sofia Seppi

Sam Pannek, a high school student at Lakota East High, in Ohio’s Liberty Township, has been fascinated by the science of the human body for as long as he can remember. “I've been interested in sciences for my whole life,” he says. “From the time that I was younger my mom would always buy me textbooks centered around facts, she did this so her and my father wouldn't have to always answer my incessant questions.”

When he gets bored, Pannek likes to work problems out in his head, “So I would think about ways to solve problems, to cure diseases,” he told USA TodayRecently Pannek turned his attention to the problem of HIV.

Lakota East High has an intensive biomedical science curriculum for students aiming for health careers. The high school is also affiliated with HOSA, the Future Health Professionals Organization, and has a chapter at the school that Panneck helped found.

“Freshman year I would do research on various medical conditions,” Pannek recalls. “A notable one being the beneficial mutation called CCR5 Delta 32 which made the carrier immune to a vast majority of HIV strains. During class I would let my mind wander and answer the the questions that no one could answer for me,” including a cure for HIV.

“Sam was always thinking about this,” his science teacher, Jim Williams said. “Sam had come up with a hypothesis: If proteins within HIV could be steadily fed into the body, as with an insulin pump, they might block the receptors in the T-cells of the immune system and ward off HIV from infecting the body.”

Pannek adds, "I learned about the Berlin Subject through doing research to check the validity of my idea; after reading about him, I became incredibly intrigued that someone who had both cancer and HIV, either one of which can possibly considered a possible death sentence, could have been cured of HIV after receiving a stem cell transplant from a donor with this beneficial mutation."

The so-called Berlin Patient” Timothy Ray Brown, was cured of leukemia and HIV via a bone marrow transplant. He’s thought to be the only individual who's been permanently cured of HIV.

Pannek came up with a simple mental picture: “The proteins would fit with the T-cell receptors like keys into locks that then snap off, preventing HIV from infecting the body.”

See Pannek's Powerpoint presentation below.

The idea didn’t come out of nowhere. As the Delaney Cell and Genome Engineering Initiative (DefeatHIV) notes, “If indeed, Timothy Brown has been functionally cured of his HIV infection, he then has provided us with a blueprint from which to work — by reverse engineering his pathway to cure, [one can] hope to recapitulate his success and develop a feasible therapy approach that would be available to the vast majority of HIV-infected individuals.”

Eager to test out his theoretical solution, Pannek says, “We tried engaging with Johnson & Johnson in an attempt to work with them, however they declined to work with us.”

In the email to Pannek (which he shared with us), Johnson & Johnson said, “Thank you very much for reaching out to Johnson & Johnson Innovation for consideration of your idea for innovation… After careful review of the submission, we are unable to proceed due to following reasons: Seeking funding for students project.”

A disappointment, to be sure, but Pannek remains enthusiastic, “We are currently planning a visit with the University of Cincinnati’s professor of infectious diseases, Dr. Carl Fichtenbaum to present our findings to his team and tour his lab.” 

“It’s pretty impressive that high school students would think about this idea, let alone try to come up with a strategy.” Dr. Fichtenbaum, said. Fichtenbaum has been looking for a cure to HIV since the late 1980s and is familiar with current cure research. 

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Left to right: Maddox Linneman, Sam Pannek, and Chase Harris

While this “cure” model obviously needs further examination, with it Pannek joins an exclusive, rarified club of fellow whiz kids like now 19-year-old gay scientist Jack Andrakawho — at 15 — found a test that can predict a person’s odds of developing three forms of cancer.  

Williams is thrilled that Pannek’s discussions about HIV lack “the cultural baggage that attached to the disease in the late 20th century – the stigma of ‘the gay plague’ that ostracized thousands of adults and even children who contracted HIV from blood transfusions.”

Personally, Pannek says he believes, “Curing HIV is something that is on par with the polio vaccine or smallpox inoculation. I want to have an effect on the world we live in and save lives.”

Pannek, also enjoys composing piano music, playing basketball, and writing case studies for the medical club that he’s in at school. "I spend a lot of time researching scientific cases and studies in the effort to come up with more theories," he says.

He’s currently looking at attending the University of Cincinnati, the University of Texas at Austin, or the University of North Texas — all of which have outstanding science programs that Panneck believes could help him test his current theory, and accomplish whatever comes next.

You can follow Pannek on Twitter.

 

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