While many 16-year-olds are content with PlayStation, Toronto-area student Marshall Zhang used the Canadian SCINET supercomputing network to invent a new drug cocktail which could one day help treat cystic fibrosis.
The Grade 11 student at Bayview Secondary School in Richmond Hill so impressed eight eminent scientists at the National Research Council of Canada laboratories in Ottawa they awarded him first prize in the 2011 Sanofi-Aventis BioTalent Challenge.
Jonathan Khouzam, Simon Leclerc, Francis Marcogliese, all 19, of Montreal’s CÉGEP Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf, won the 2nd place prize for finding a way to produce a great sorbet without geletin, potentially opening a large new vegetarian market for the popular frozen dessert. Geletin is derived from the skin and bones of animals.
First and second place winners receive $5,000 and $4,000 respectively. The trio from Montreal also won a special $1,000 prize for the project deemed by the judges to have the greatest commercial potential.
Zhang and the Montreal team will compete against U.S. and Australian teams at the International BioGENEius Challenge in Washington, DC, June 27, held in conjunction with the Biotechnology Industry Organization’s (BIO) Annual International Convention.
The other top prizes were collected by:
3rd place ($3,000): Shannon Watson, 18, a Grade 12 student at Ottawa’s Cantebury High School, who identified bacteria in a pro-biotic fermented milk product from Zambia that inhibit the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria;
4th place ($2,000): Yasamin Mahjoub, 16, a Grade 11 student at Sir Winston Churchill High School, Calgary, who showed that hormones produced by pregnant women protect neurons from the effects of iron accumulation in the brain, suggesting a new line of inquiry into the causes and treatment of multiple sclerosis; and
5th place ($1,000): Siyuan Cheng, 18, a Grade 12 student at Fort Richmond Collegiate, Winnipeg, who combined the standard drug treatment for leukaemia with a lung cancer drug to greatly increase the numbers of leukemia cells being killed.
“Marshall’s findings show that computational methods can drive the discovery of compounds that may offer effective treatment for cystic fibrosis,” says his project mentor Dr. Christine Bear, a researcher at the Hospital for Sick Children’s Research Institute.
At Bear’s lab , Zhang used sophisticated SCINET computer modeling to investigate what these drugs might be doing to ‘correct’ the genetic defect at the molecular level. On the computer, he identified how two drugs each interacted with one specific part of the mutant protein. He then proved his ‘virtual’ findings were correct using living cells in culture.
Zhang correctly suspected that using two drugs together might prove more effective because they interacted with different parts of the mutant protein.
“The cells treated with the two drugs were functioning as if they were the cells of healthy individuals,” says Zhang.
“The thrill of knowing that I was on the forefront of current knowledge was absolutely the best thing about my experience,” says Marshall, adding that the lab work and “getting a taste of real research has definitely driven me towards pursuing science in the future.”
“I think that Marshall has tremendous potential to be a scientist in the future because of his intelligence, motivation and determination,” adds Bear.
Now in its 18th year, the Sanofi-Aventis BioTalent Challenge is a high-level event that introduces students to the real world of biotechnology by carrying out research projects of their own design. Each student team works with a mentor in their community, who provides expert advice and access to equipment and supplies. The projects and presentations are judged at the NRC by senior officials of the federal public service and private sector, and by the previous student winner of the SABC national competition.
University-level mentoring is a distinguishing characteristic of the competition, as is the emphasis judges place on the ability of competitors to communicate science ideas.
The competition drives students to broaden their horizons and challenge their intellect. Each of the student teams work with a mentor in their community who provides expert advice and access to equipment and supplies. Many of the students who compete go on to careers in biotechnology, healthcare, agriculture, and the environment.
More than 100 organizations Canada-wide are partnered in this educational outreach initiative.
Release Date: May 10, 2011
Source: BioTalent Canada