Incoming first-year Nia Clements’ cure for gastric cancer draws the attention of Bill Nye, Adam Savage, and Joe Biden
by Molly Mohr Bruni
Nia Clements’ fascination with biomedical research began in second grade. It was her turn to take care of her class’ pet rat, Sniffles, for a weekend. Playing with it, though, Clements noticed a lump on its side. After doing some research, the eight-year-old diagnosed the rat with breast cancer.
Clements brought her findings back to her teacher, who encouraged Clements to take the rat to the vet if she wanted. There, she heard a familiar sentiment:
“The vet diagnosed her with breast cancer and said they’d have to take out the tumor,” Clements explains. “I asked if I could keep the tumor, and they let me. I went back to school with this giant tumor in a jar and presented it to my class, and I absolutely loved it. I was so fascinated by it.”
Just a few years later, in fifth grade, Clements’ grandfather was diagnosed with gastric cancer. He passed away after two short months with the disease.
“It was really shocking to me to see someone go from perfectly healthy to dying in two months,” Clements says. “One of the things that really struck me about that was how few treatment options there were for him.”
She wondered why there weren’t more drug candidates for gastric cancer. One of the factors, she thought, may be because limited options can survive in the inhospitable environment the stomach creates. Clements spent the next two years developing a hypothesis around a cure for gastric cancer—something that was known for its ability to kill bacteria and withstand strong stomach acid.
“When my grandfather died of gastric cancer, I knew I wanted to try and find a better treatment for the disease,” she explains. “I essentially stumbled across sandalwood oil because I was using it as a face wash for my terrible acne around the time of my grandfather’s death. I knew the oil was an antibacterial agent, and that gastric cancer was postulated to be caused by a bacterial agent.”
Clements also looked into the oil because of its safety—it has been cleared by the FDA as a food additive—and its low cost. But then, as if her grandfather’s diagnosis wasn’t enough, Clement’s mom began fighting breast cancer at the same time her father battled non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Clements had even more personal motivation to keep researching.
“Both of my parents going through cancer treatments at the same time was not only a massive toll mentally and physically, but also financially,” she explains. “That furthered my research because I wanted to have a treatment that was a viable option because it was safe, but also because it was financially viable for a lot of families.”
Beginning her research at age 13, Clements ran into some roadblocks—one being that she wasn’t old enough to conduct studies inside research facilities. A researcher at UT Health San Antonio performed tests inside the lab according to Clements’ instructions, since she herself wasn’t allowed inside. That was when her breakthroughs began. Through her studies, Clements found that not only does sandalwood oil kill gastric cancer cells at low concentrations, but it doesn’t appear to be chemically changed after exposure to a stomach-like environment. She had found a potential cure that could withstand the destructive stomach acid that so many drugs could not.
Clements began winning competitions and presenting at conferences with these findings, landing on the cover of the inaugural issue of Smore, a magazine that empowers young girls to study STEM. Clements, a Keystone School graduate, was even invited to the White House Science Fair as a sophomore in high school. There, she met Bill Nye and Adam Savage, who both posted about her on their social media accounts. Bill Nye was so impressed that he is featuring Clements in his upcoming documentary, The Bill Nye Documentary. Vice president Joe Biden took a particular interest in her and other cancer researchers because his son had passed away the year before from brain cancer. He brought Clements and a select few back to his office, talking with them for a while about their research.
Clements explains that the White House Science Fair took place early on in her research, though, and since then she’s made even more groundbreaking research. Now that she knew the oil did kill gastric cancer cells, she wanted to understand how it did so.
“I decided to study ion channels because they’re becoming more and more known as important therapeutic targets for drugs, which interested me,” she explains. “By using automated patch clamping, I found a TRPM7-like ionic current in the gastric cancer cells.”
That ionic current, she discovered, only helps diseased cells survive and multiply. And she found that the sandalwood oil inhibited this current, effectively killing the cancer cells that relied on the current for survival. On top of that, Clements’ preliminary research has also shown that sandalwood oil does not kill normal cells—only the diseased cells—and does not inhibit that same ionic current found in normal cells. Recently Clements has expanded this research into oral, colon, and breast cancer cells, too, since they all share the TRPM7-like ion channel. The results are promising: The sandalwood oil also kills these cancer cells.
It’s hard to believe that the brainpower behind all of this research lives on Mulberry Drive, which lines one side of Trinity’s campus. That proximity, she says, initially made her blind to Trinity’s potential.
“Even though Trinity was the best fit for me, I kind of overlooked it because it was too close,” Clements laughs. She always planned on applying but “never really took it seriously, to be honest.”
But, she says, she began talking to people who went to Trinity. “All the people that I’ve known who have gone to Trinity, I’ve really admired, and I feel like that says a lot,” she says.
Then, Clements attended Tiger Friday, an on-campus event for admitted students and their families. She was wowed by the friendliness that the students and faculty showed her. Clements noted that a professor emailed her after she attended one of his classes, inviting her to ask him any questions she wished. That kind of personal attention left an impact on her.
“All the students and professors were so inviting,” Clements remembers. “The type of people at Trinity are the type of people I can see myself surrounding myself with.”
But the entrepreneurship program was “one of the biggest things that attracted [her] to Trinity,” Clements says. After applying, she attended the Stumberg Venture Competition, an event where Trinity students pitch their startup companies to land seed money and mentorship.
“This is what I see myself doing in college,” she remembers thinking.
More specifically, Clements plans to use her anticipated entrepreneurship minor to create sandalwood oil products. She’s already encapsulated the oil for gastric cancer patients (the next step is making sure it’s safe for human consumption as an internal medicine). At Trinity, she wants to create a gum and a mouthwash with the sandalwood oil for oral and throat cancer patients. She’ll live in Entrepreneurship Hall this year to get a jump start on the products, and she’ll major in biochemistry and molecular biology to continue her disease research.
But in true Trinity fashion, Clements’ plans for college include more than just curing cancer. She plays the violin, is passionate about meteorology, and enjoys sailing, achieving Royal Yachting Association Certification at various levels. Clements hopes to get a group of students together to sail on the weekends. It appears she’ll have the wind at her back when she arrives on campus this August.
Molly Mohr Bruni is the managing editor for the Office of Strategic Communications and Marketing. She is in awe of Trinity students and can’t wait for them to arrive back on campus. Reach out to her at mmohr [at] trinity.edu.