Boy, 12, Wins Awards for Cancer Research Science Project

Stephen Litt had first-hand knowledge of the devastation cancer causes, having seen family friends and several of his friends' parents battle the disease.

A Georgia seventh-grader went above and beyond while preparing for the state’s science fair, developing a cancer-related science project that not only swept awards, but may advance future research in the field, authorities said.

Stephen Litt, 12, had first-hand knowledge of the devastation cancer causes, having seen family friends and several of his friends’ parents battle the disease, he told   

“I felt like I had to prove that I was actually doing something and that there was help for them and that they could truly do something and not just sit there and be sick,” he said.

With the support of his parents, Stephen in October launched into a month-long project that examined whether an antioxidant found in green tea could prevent breast cancer tumors in a type of flatworm called planarian.

“My wife and I, we just help to procure everything that he needed. He would send me a list of things that he needed after reading up on everything,” said Stephen’s father, Lesley Litt. “It encompassed all sorts of different things from simple plastic pipettes to plastic containers, a microscope, and this year some chemicals to actually induce cancer in these planarian worms."

The father and son set up a research station in the front room of their home, where Stephen got to work.

Read: Woman Never Noticed Greenish Bruise Which Ended Up Being Breast Cancer

One hundred worms were divided into four groups, each of which was exposed to a different substance over the course of four weeks.

“I was testing whether that would [cause] tumor regeneration, or the formation of cancer tumors in planarians,” Stephen explained.

One group was exposed to epigallocatechin-3-gallate — EGCG — the phytochemical found in green tea; while the second group was exposed to EGCG for 24 hours and then to two carcinogens for the remainder of the experiment; the third group was exposed to the two types of carcinogens; and the fourth group was exposed to spring water.

The aspiring chemical engineer documented the results using a microscope he got as a gift.

“I found that the EGCG did in fact stop the carcinogens from causing tumors in planarians,” Stephen said.

“He learned something — we learned something," his father said. "He stumbled upon something somewhat that brings him and research a little bit closer to this mystery of cancer — how it actually happens, how cells regenerate. Because when they fail, that’s how cancer arises and nobody still knows why.

"What’s interesting is, the cancer cells, they don’t know when to stop regenerating, so you get a huge tumor. But yet the stem cells inside the planarian worm, they know when to stop. They know when to stop forming the head or the eyes or the tail and then it’s done. So, Stephen’s got a little bit closer to bridging that gap."

The results were reassuring for the pre-teen, who said he doubted the project’s ability to succeed at first.

Read: The Rescued Animals That Got a Little Help From Science to Get Back in the Swing of Things This Year

“Before I actually thought about my hypothesis, I thought it wasn’t going to work, but then I thought about it a little more and I thought ‘Well, if everything is saying green tea has anti-cancer properties, then why shouldn’t it work?’” he said. “That, I feel like, was the biggest hurdle for me. It was a mental state.”

Stephen’s project won six awards at the Georgia Science and Engineering fair and it has advanced to compete in a national science and engineering competition.

He was also invited to visit a Tufts University research lab over his spring break.

“That was very important because Stephen actually got to see a real lab with real equipment, with people who were doing some very, very advanced studies, which I’m pretty sure are going to help people someday,” Lesley Litt said. “It’s just a matter of who’s going to find that holy grail.”

Though busy with school, playing tennis, practicing the oboe, and earning badges as a Boy Scout, Stephen said he isn’t through with his project, noting that he hopes to build on the work he’s already done.

“I’m either going to be testing a different carcinogen combination to make sure that the chemicals didn’t just cancel out," he said. "I could also use a more advanced organism like a small rodent, or I could figure out how this works. I never really want to stop unless if I absolutely have to."

Watch: Why This 7-Year-Old Science Whiz is Being Called the Next Einstein