Sacred Heart student Eva Lentini breaks new ground in cancer research


Evalina Lentini, of Rockville Centre, is a professionally trained ballerina and a student scientist who is proving that there’s no need to choose one passion over another. The 18-year-old senior at Sacred Heart Academy, in Hempstead, not only continues to dance, but is also busy in the laboratory, with a science project that may break new ground in the field of cancer research.

“It would be a long path out of clinical trial,” she said. “(But) it could be effective as a really big step towards being an actual treatment for prostate cancer.”

Lentini presented her project, “Evaluation of Therapeutics to Target Stem Cell-Like Prostate Cancer,” at the Long Island Science and Engineering Fair, or LISEF, at the Crest Hollow Country Club on Jan. 31.

Her research project looked at two different types of inhibitor therapies, which are designed to slow or stop the progress of cancer cells. She found that both therapies are very good at stopping those cancer cells from proliferating, but she found something more — that stem cell-like prostate cancer depends on existing cellular pathways, which isn’t established knowledge even among doctors and scientists.

“If my findings show that these therapies are effective, that could possibly lead its next step towards the clinical trial,” Lentini said.

That development is huge not only for stem cell-like prostate cancer, but for any cancer that behaves similarly. “Further therapies can be developed to target that pathway and improve therapy options for patients,” Lentini said.

Her project — which has officially moved onto the next round of LISEF, on March 5 — is the culmination of her four years in Sacred Heart Academy’s science research program. As part of the program, Lentini has worked with the Human Oncology and Pathogenesis program of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center for the past two summers, where she met her mentor, Dr. Chen Khuan Wong, and learned about stem cell-like prostate cancer. It’s the second-most common form of prostate cancer, but has been far less researched than its more common counterpart.

Thus, her exploration of the relationship between inhibitor therapies and cellular pathways was born. Even fellow scientists said they have difficulty understanding the ins and outs of her project.

“I’m a behavioral scientist, so most of what she’s talking about, I don’t understand,” Stephen Sullivan, director of the science research program, said.

“Or, at the very least when she explains it, I understand it for 20 minutes, I can explain it to the next person I see, and then I have to ask her again the following day,” Sullivan said.

As impressive as her scientific accomplishments may be, her dancing skills are just as superb. Lentini is a ballerina at the Eglevsky ballet, where she trains five days a week.

“Originally my career plan was to be a ballerina,” Lentini said. “That was my whole thing up until freshman year, when I took freshman year research here.”

Now her future plans include a pre-med education and, eventually, medical school.

Lentini said that science and dancing are more closely connected than most people realize.

“That’s my whole philosophy,” she said. “They’re more intertwined than people think they are.

“Science in and of itself is an art — I think a lot of people forget that,” Lentini added. “It’s important to have the creativity as an artist, to be able to implement that into the scientific method, in general, and to be able to research and come up with creative ideas and take risks, and have that innovative mind to be able to actually get somewhere in science research.”

But those who suggest that science is reserved mostly for boys should take a look at the LISEF competition, where the ratio of competitors was around four women to three men, Sullivan said.

“I was also shocked to find that a majority of the competitors at LISEF were women or girls that were there,” Lentini said. “So that was also very encouraging, especially going to an all girls’ school, learning that a lot of other women are in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — and aspiring pros in research.

“I think we have this stigma that it’s male-dominated,” she added, “And I’ve had the honor to have not really experienced that yet.”

So many women presenting their scientific findings at LISEF are also interested in the arts, Lentini said — and she found kinship with her fellow students who rejected the idea they had to choose between their passions.

Sullivan said the favorite part of his job is learning from his students’ original research. Watching them mature throughout their time in the program, he said, is “enlightening.” And the possibilities are unlimited for Lentini, he said.

Wherever she decides to attend college, her preferred major is molecular development and cellular biology. She wants to delve further into cancer genetics and further her research while a pre-med student, and then focus on oncology in medical school.

“And a minor in dance,” she added.

Round 2 of LISEF is scheduled for Tuesday, March 5 at Crest Hollow Country Club. The top 15 projects on Long Island will be entered at the International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles in May, where winners can receive a $5,000 cash prize and up to $75,000 in scholarship money.