Four students who recently won the top awards in the biological division of the UCF Graduate Research Symposium went on to compete at the statewide competition, where one brought home a second-place finish.

Simeon Thibeaux, who is investigating the links between an enzyme and fatty liver diseases, was runner-up in his division’s competition at the University of South Florida.

The biomedical students’ cutting-edge research spanned from looking at ways to reduce bad cholesterol to curbing the spread of Lyme disease. The winners earned high praise from 80 faculty judges who reviewed more than 200 projects during the UCF competition.

Here’s a snapshot of their work and how they placed at the UCF competition.

Simeon Thibeaux, Biotechnology
First Place Master’s, Life Sciences at UCF competition and Second Place at State level
Cathepsin B Regulates VLDL Secretion Through LFABP Cleavage
Mentor: Shadab Siddiqui, associate professor in the College of Medicine
Coauthors: Shaila Siddiqi, Olga Zhelyabovska, Faisal Moinuddin, Michal Masternak and Shadab Siddiqi

Simeon Thibeaux has spent the past two years researching an enzyme in the liver that contributes to fatty liver disease. His research found that the enzyme cathepsin B controls bad cholesterol secretion by the liver, thus reducing risk of the disease. Fatty liver disease can lead to hepatocellular carcinoma, a form of liver cancer.

“Hepatocellular carcinoma is very difficult to treat, and in most cases can only be corrected with a liver transplant,” Thibeaux said, noting that patients have a less than a 5 percent survival rate after five years of diagnosis. “So my goal is to identify potential mechanisms that you can target and treat before you get to the point where it’s no longer clinically treatable.”

Thibeaux said he has spent countless hours working on this research.

“Beyond everything that you see on my poster, there is a lot that goes on behind the scenes to make sure you are doing everything right,” he said. “So it’s nice to know that all the late nights and early mornings pay off.”

“Simeon is without a question one of the brightest young scientists I have ever encountered who has always exceeded my expectations,” mentor Shadab Siddiqi said. “I am not at all surprised by his win.”

Thibeaux is heading to medical school after graduating this spring.

Philip Adams, Biomedical Sciences
First Place Doctoral, Health Sciences at UCF
Borrelia Burgdorferi Gene bb0562 Encodes a Membrane-Associated Protein Critical for Lyme Disease Pathogenesis
Mentor: Mollie Jewett, associate professor in the College of Medicine
Coauthors: Carlos Flores Avile and Mollie Jewett

Adams has spent the past five years working with Jewett researching Lyme disease – a tick-borne illness afflicting more than 300,000 people a year.

From his research, Adams has identified a new gene (bb0562) in borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria that allows the tick to spread the infection.

“We found that when we remove this gene from the bacteria, the bacteria are no longer able to infect the animals, which shows this gene is really important for causing Lyme disease,” Adams said. “Learning more about the basic biology of the organism can help us find new therapeutics and diagnostic tools.”

His research on the survival mechanism for Lyme disease has been published in Nucleic Acids Research, an international peer-reviewed journal published by Oxford University Press. In 2014, he was also invited to train in RNA biochemistry techniques at the Max F. Perutz Laboratories in Vienna.

“Philip has matured over the past five years in incredible ways,” Jewett said. “He has been very successful and has become an expert in molecular biology, gene regulation, pathogenesis. I am very proud of him, and winning this award is the perfect culmination to the end of his career as a graduate student here.”

After graduating from UCF this summer, Adams will complete a post-doctoral fellowship at the National Institutes of Health.

Carolina Rodrigues Felix, Biomedical Sciences
First Place Doctoral, Life Sciences at UCF
High-Throughput Screening of Marine-Derived Compounds Yields Potent Inhibitors of Dormant Mycobacterium Tuberculosis
Mentor: Kyle Rohde, assistant professor in the College of Medicine
Coauthors: Rashmi Gupta, Sandra Geden, Amy Wright of Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University, and Kyle Rohde

According to the Centers for Disease Control, tuberculosis caused 1.8 million deaths worldwide in 2015. Rodrigues Felix is trying to reduce deaths by finding a new drug to treat this disease that affects one-third of the world’s population. Her research investigates whether marine-derived compounds in sponges can kill dormant or tolerant bacteria,that cause tuberculosis.

“The bacteria that causes tuberculosis are very difficult to kill because they can sometimes become tolerant to the drugs that are currently available,” Rodrigues Felix said. “The treatment we have now takes about six months with four antibiotics administered. So our goal is to find new molecules that can more effectively kill the bacteria and shorten the treatment time.”

This is Rodrigues Felix’s second win at the Graduate Research Forum, having received the top prize in 2015 for her research on TB.

“Carolina is setting a strong foundation for discovering new TB drugs and for others to be able to learn what we have learned,” said Rohde. “It’s always a proud moment to see a student get recognized for their hard work and achievements and it was well deserved.”

Anika Saxena, Biotechnology First Place Master’s, Life Sciences
PG-VTV Biogenesis Requires ATP to Facilitate Phosphorylation of Syntaxin 17
Mentor: Shadab Siddiqi, associate professor in the College of Medicine
Coauthors: Bhavesh Gurwani, Shaila Siddiqi and Shadab Siddiqi

Saxena’s research identified a distinct protein that regulates the secretion of VLDL (bad cholesterol), which in high levels can cause heart disease.

“Atherosclerosis is the biggest cause of death in the U.S. among all cardiovascular diseases,” Saxena said, “so it’s important to study ways to control VLDL secretion to reduce the instances of heart disease.”

Saxena said the win was unexpected. “There were so many good participants, so I was really surprised. This was really good news for me, the lab and especially my parents in India who are so proud to see me doing so well.”

Siddiqi said Saxena’s passion come through in her dedication.

“Anika ranks among my very best students who has proved herself a sterling young scientist,” Siddiqi said. “I have also found her to be perseverant and enthusiastic in research activities.”

Two other UCF students from other colleges also placed at the statewide competition:

Amin Eftekhar from CREOL won first place in the natural and physical sciences division.

Sana Siddiqui earned second place in the Engineering division.

For more information on those students, click here.