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AHS student finds breakthrough research with UVA

Published: Jun. 15, 2022 at 11:06 AM EDT
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - Meenakshi Ambati just graduated from Albemarle High School, and she is already on her way to helping millions of people.

Meenakshi is showing how a drug that usually helps with depression could also help with blindness.

“I don’t think anyone expects to, you know, make a finding like this,” she said.

“It is definitely not normal for a person at that particular age to come out with breakthroughs like this. In my scientific career, so far, I’ve been working in science research for about 15 years now, and I have not seen anyone at this particular stage in their reach to make a discovery like this,” Praveen Yerramothu said.

A lot of Meenakshi’s education was actually done in a lab at the University of Virginia. Yerramothu is one of her mentors. Together, they are using Prozac to halt macular degeneration.

“It sounds a bit weird, right? Having an antidepressant be repurposed for this disease,” Meenakshi said.

Macular degeneration is considered an incurable disease that can cause blindness.

“The past 20-25 years, there have been hundreds of clinical trials for this disease, all of them have failed. So there’s obviously something wrong, and, you know, in the approach that we’re doing it, which is why I thought, ‘Hey, let’s try and repurpose a drug that we already have,’” Meenakshi said.

The research appears to be promising, thus far. Meenakshi is getting patents, a biotech company is doing clinical trials on her findings, and she has a $2,000 grant to do more.

“I was absolutely dumbfounded. I was just so excited that I made this discovery, this really surprising discovery,” she said.

Meenakshi says it was the drive inside her fueling the success of this project. She says she was interested in science at a very young age. Her father also works at the medical center, and she says he has been supportive of her work and part of her interest in studies like this.

Meenakshi also says she was inspired by all of the people impacted by blindness, and that’s why she wanted to make a difference.

“This was certainly a passion project of mine. I absolutely loved doing it,” she said.

Meenakshi is heading to Yale in the fall, where she has a distinguished scholarship to do research there.

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