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Cancer cure breakthrough by Nalanda student:

Ceylon tea, the saviour

A casual glance at Rakitha Malewana, a grade 13 student of Nalanda College will not give away any telltale signs of his genius. He appears quite ordinary, like any other school boy of his age who likes to chill out with his friends, get glued to watching cartoons on TV or nothing short of a computer game fanatic.

Rakitha flanked by teacher Champika Hanagalaarachchi, Principal, Col.Ranjith Jayasundara and mother Upekha Abeysekera.

But underneath that mischievous smile, and happy go-lucky demeanour you wouldn't know that within him a 'Charles Richard Drew' is probably in the making.

He is already responsible for making a breakthrough in cancer treatment with a cure that can be perfected with further research.

Rakitha with his new find will represent Sri Lanka at one of the most prestigious science and engineering events in the world calendar - Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF) 2014 which will be held in Los Angeles in May.

This research which is his fifth international research, 'Use of nano technology to kill leukemic cells in breast cancer patients has won him the first place at the Sri Lanka Science and Engineering Fair 2014 and also a ticket to Intel ISEF 2014 to compete with 1600 brilliant brains worldwide - all of them college students from over 70 countries. Their work will be judged and reviewed by a panel of doctoral level scientists.

"My future goal is to be a professional researcher in medical science and after that I want to make my lifetime dream a reality, which is to be the youngest Nobel Prize winner of the world", Rakitha told Sunday Observer when we visited Nalanda College to meet him last week.

From the Principal down to the security guard at the gate seem to revel on this young boy's talent and his achievement, going by the warm welcome my photographer and I received.

Intel Fair is considered the mini Nobel or college students' Olympics of Science, Technology and Engineering work. Of over 7 million high school students in the grades from 9 to 13 only the best and the brightest 1600 innovators will get the chance to compete in the Fair and claim a share of US $ 4 million.

Nalanda College Principal, Col.Ranjith Jayasundara Teacher-in-charge, Science Society Champika Hanagalaarachchi
Rakitha's mother, Upeksha Abeysekera  Rakitha Malewana

Rakitha has had dreams bigger than self from as early as 12 years of age. He had done minor research projects when he was around this age but the first important undertaking was a waste water treatment filter that could be used on factory emissions, in 2010.

In 2011 he won a merit award at the National Science Foundation's Scientific Research Project competition for a field capacity testing device which can be used in agriculture.

Later in 2012 he and his best friend Rananjaya Subash of the same grade developed a concoction using cinnamon and young jak fruit extracts to boost platelet levels in blood as dengue treatment ...and they together won the Junior Inventor of the Year award that year at the Sri Lanka Science and Engineering Fair organised in collaboration with National Science Foundation, Ministry of Education, Intel Corporation of Sri Lanka and the Institution of Engineers.

This research too was selected to represent Sri Lanka at the Intel ISEF last year in Arizona, U.S.A.

"When we took the dengue research, it was not so impressive to some of those present at the Intel Fair. Dengue is a deadly disease but confined to only certain parts of the world. I realised that not many knew how important this innovation for countries like Sri Lanka."

"So this year I thought I must do something that can make a bigger impact, that can reach a wider audience."

He reckoned cancer research would be of wider interest. It is a growing public health menace and is a major cause of mortality even in Sri Lanka. Once cancer is diagnosed, patients are usually treated with a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and / or radiotherapy. Many cancers cannot be conquered successfully by the above treatment modalities, due to various limitations.

With the emergence of nano technology, most of research groups are interested on targeted cancer therapies in order to minimize the side effects on healthy tissues while delivering the drug to pre-determined targets located in transformed cells.

Rakitha with Subash, best friend and his research partner last year at the Bio lab of Nalanda College

Rakitha says he also wanted his biological research to be more sophisticated this year, so he embarked on nano technology and recombination technology to derive best results.

He has realised the future of the world will depend on artificial intelligence, recombination technology and nano technology.

Explaining the technical side of his research Rakitha said, "In cancer treatment doctors try to remove or inhibit cancer cells without affecting the adjacent healthy tissues. Nano particles have that ability to target the exact cells. If I give you a simple example, there are a mixture of cancerous cells, red blood cells and platelets. When I added nano particles to that mixture of cells, the Nano particles identified the cancerous cells and attacked them, but they didn't attack other red blood cells or platelets. That's the ability of targeted drug delivery of Nano particles."

Principal of Nalanda College, Col.Ranjith Jayasundara

"We want our children to reach beyond national level. That is a motto in Nalanda College. We have conquered the national boundaries already. At the morning assembly I remind our children to reach for international goals. I know our students take these words seriously when they come and inquire from me, 'Sir what should we do?".

"Rakitha has made all of us proud and I am happy that he has set a precedent. In the present education system, children have lost their capacity to be analytical and practical. They are trained to cram for formatted exam papers.

"What they do at GCE Ordinary and Advanced Level exams, is put out verbatim what they have memorized for years. A student obtaining three A passes will score only three credit passes or less if the same paper is repeated after three months. This is their so-called knowledge.

"In Nalanda College we want our students to go beyond this and aim beyond preferred white collar jobs - Doctors, Engineers, Lawyers, etc.

"We are aspiring to produce a youth Olympic champion. Last year we made our first attempt, he emerged the 54th fastest student in that event. The highest award for education and research is the Nobel prize. It is not for college students. But this Intel Fair is considered a 'mini Nobel' and we pin our hopes on Rakitha."

"In this project I have used Nano particles and it was coated with a chemical compound which can be found in green tea. I used that chemical because Sri Lanka is famous in the world for tea, I wanted to promote our country. Ceylon tea is known and loved world over."

He has done the chemistry part of the research under the guidance of Dr. (Mrs.) Rohini de Silva and Prof. K.M.Nalin de Silva of the Colombo University and the biological part under the guidance of Dr.Prasanna Galhena of Kelaniya University.

"The project contains a very expensive budget for a school student", Rakitha said and he is grateful to Dr.Anil Samaranayake, Director of Medical Research Institute, MRI who had funded his entire research.

The research needs to be further developed before it can be used in cancer treatment and Rakitha wants to pursue this dream.

Rakitha's mother Upeksha Abeysekera, who is also a teacher at Ananda College has been a beacon of strength helping her son to fulfil his dream. She said "Rakitha is not just a brilliant boy in science. He is a Kandyan dancer who has ... 'Wes' when he was in grade 7. He is also a ballet dancer. He became the top dancer at Nalanda College in 2011.

He is the voice behind the little boy in ITN's most viewed cartoon show Dunu Waliga and a few other famous animated characters. Rakitha's brother Akila Malewana is a student at Colombo University Science Faculty.

"His brother scored well in Grade five scholarship exam but Rakitha could not reach that high," His mother says. May be his brain was too large to be contained in a local standard examination.

Rakitha is the President of School Science Society. The teacher-in-charge of the society Champika Hanagalaarachchi said Rakitha is an inspiration for his fellow students and is always pushing even teachers into organising events within school or inspire others to take part in outside competitions.

"I am studying bio subjects for my A/L exam but my dream is not to be a Doctor. I want to be a scientist and invent the things that help doctors in their profession," Rakitha concluded in a grown up voice adding he is grateful to Nalanda College for his achievements.

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