Warner Robins teen scientist's experiment may help fight cancer

He's praised for research on how a Georgia plant could inhibit brain tumors

A pushy teacher and an endangered Georgia plant led a once-reluctant teen science fair contestant to help discover a possible new treatment for brain cancer.

It all started with high expectations.

At Johnny Fells' Warner Robins middle school, it was mandatory for gifted kids to participate in the science fair. But Fells, a spirited straight-A student, didn't see the point. He was a mathematician, not a science geek.

"It didn't seem like my cup of tea," sighed Fells, now an 18-year-old with an international profile in cancer research. "Science wasn't my thing."

Yet Fells wasn't a quitter. Though some of his classmates ditched the science fair, he threw together a project at the last minute — and won second place.

The experience changed his life.

Fast-forward five years, 38 science competitions and more than $20,000 in prize money later to an international stage at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta. Fells, now a confident senior, wears a wide grin and a three-piece suit as more than 3,000 scientists, manufacturers and educators at a global convention on bioscience listen to a vice president of a leading pharmaceutical company talk about the teen's latest experiment.

Fells, now recognized as a third-place winner in the Sanofi-Aventis International BioGENEius Challenge, is praised for his work on a research project that tested the medicinal values of extracts from Scutellaria, a popular Chinese herb also known as Skullcap, in treating brain cancer. He was one of 15 finalists in the international competition, which rewards projects with scientific depth and commercial appeal.

Under the guidance of his mentor at Fort Valley State University, the accomplished Northside High School scientist found that the Ocmulgee Skullcap, a distant cousin of the Asian Scutellaria growing in Georgia, was a better inhibitor of glioma in rat brain cells than the well-known Chinese herb. The Ocmulgee Skullcap, which Fells grew in a lab, is on the USDA's list of "threatened" plants. Fells performed tests on it at Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit.

"The fact that the Ocmulgee Skullcap is a better inhibitor was surprising," a beaming Fells said earlier. "It is found 15 miles away from my house and doesn't have any medicinal purpose. ... It could possibly be used as a cancer therapy on humans."

Fells' mentor Nirmal Joshee, a Fort Valley professor who exposed the student to collegiate research after meeting him at an eighth-grade science fair, opened doors for Fells to conduct cancer experiments so he could have a better chance of winning science fairs and getting into a top university.

Fells assisted Joshee in his studies of the medicinal properties of the Scutellaria plant family in treating cancer, which was published in a German journal on herbal medicine. The research is in early stages.

"He's doing master's level or Ph.D. level work. He's got an outstanding start in life," Joshee said of Fells.

Now, Fells is a two-time title winner of the Southeast BioGENEius Challenge. On Tuesday, he won another $2,500 in the international round as a third-place winner. "I'm speechless," said his mother, Cora Fells-Gibson. "All the hard work he put in is paying off."

Fells is heading to Columbia University in July — on a full scholarship.

So, who beat Fells in this contest? The first-place winner conducted research that could help hospitals better detect and prevent the spread of staph infections in patients. The second-place winner did research on harvesting energy and cleansing wastewater.