7th-Grader Finds Cancer-Fighting Chemical in Green Tea

A middle-schooler's intellectual curiosity led to a home lab experiment that showed an antioxidant in green tea holds promise for cancer prevention.

Stephen Litt
Apr. 24, 2017
By Mary West
Stephen Litt

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The world may be one step closer to hav­ing a cure for can­cer — thanks to the work of a 12-year-old’s sci­ence project. Seventh-grader Stephen Litt from Georgia dis­cov­ered a com­pound in green tea pre­vented can­cer in a type of flat­worm.

The sci­en­tific com­mu­nity knows about EGCG, but no one has been able to obtain these results in any kind of liv­ing sys­tem.- Lesley Litt

Stephen’s project began when two fam­ily friends were diag­nosed with breast can­cer. After read­ing about the dis­ease, he found that a reduced inci­dence of malig­nancy in Japan is asso­ci­ated with the antiox­i­dants in green tea.

This knowl­edge served as the moti­vat­ing force behind his exper­i­ment to test the hypoth­e­sis that a polyphe­nol in the tea could sup­press the devel­op­ment of tumors in worms exposed to car­cino­gens.

First, Stephen and his dad, Lesley Litt, pur­chased the mate­ri­als online to con­struct a makeshift home lab­o­ra­tory. Next, the teen started the four-week project by divid­ing 100 pla­naria, a type of flat­worm, into four groups.

One group received expo­sure to only a com­pound called epi­gal­lo­cat­e­chin-3-gal­late (EGCG), while a sec­ond group received expo­sure to EGCG for 24 hours fol­lowed by con­tact with two car­cino­gens for the remain­der of the study. The third group under­went expo­sure to the two car­cino­gens with­out the EGCG, and the fourth group was the con­trol group, receiv­ing expo­sure only to spring water.


The car­cino­gens cho­sen for the project were Cadmium Sulfate and 12-O-Tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate, or TPA. Stephen’s dad, a chemist, mixed them him­self to pre­vent his son from hav­ing con­tact with the dan­ger­ous agents.

Planaria were selected because they con­tain neoblasts, a vari­ety of stem cells that act sim­i­larly to can­cer cells. Stephen the­o­rized that hin­der­ing the nor­mal func­tion­ing of the neoblasts could lead to a pos­si­ble cure for can­cer.

Stephen Litt

Using a micro­scope given to him by his grand­par­ents, Stephen care­fully doc­u­mented the results and found the pla­naria exposed to both EGCG and the car­cino­gens didn’t develop any tumors dur­ing the inter­ven­tion period. Conversely, all the pla­naria exposed to the car­cino­gens alone did develop tumors. The project won local and state sci­ence awards.

In an inter­view with Olive Oil Times, Stephen and his dad shared their thoughts about the expe­ri­ence. I didn’t expect my orig­i­nal hypoth­e­sis to work, so the results made me feel relieved and amaz­ingly good,” Stephen said.

I was a lit­tle skep­ti­cal of the find­ings at first. It’s very rare to get a slam-dunk in a study,” the elder Litt said. He did some­thing nobody else has ever done. The sci­en­tific com­mu­nity knows about EGCG, but no one has been able to obtain these results in any kind of liv­ing sys­tem.

Because the study was con­fined to four weeks, we don’t know if the pla­naria would have devel­oped tumors later. However, the fact that no tumor for­ma­tion occurred within that time­frame is remark­able.”

So just what makes this aspir­ing sci­en­tist tick? He is a well-rounded teen who is active in the Boy Scouts and is accom­plished in karate, ten­nis and play­ing the oboe. Yet per­haps it is his intel­lec­tual curios­ity that most sets him apart. This attribute will undoubt­edly equip him for a bright future in research if he chooses to enter it.

Stephen reads up on things and wants to fig­ure out how things work. That’s pretty much what research is,” Lesley Litt said.

What is next on the teen’s agenda? He wants to trans­plant human breast can­cer cells or pieces of tumors into worms and test the effects of EGCG on them,” Litt said. We eagerly await the results of Stephen’s next research project.


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