Toronto-area Student, 16, Uses Supercomputer to Invent New Drug Cocktail to Fight Cystic Fibrosis, Wins Top Prize in National Science Challeng

Greater Toronto Area, Greater Montreal, Ottawa, Calgary, Winnipeg students win top national honours for high school biotechnology projects
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 Canada laboratories in Ottawa they awarded him first prize today in the 2011 Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada.

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.
Marshall and the Montreal team will compete against US 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, 14, a Grade 9 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.
14 truly cutting-edge biotechnology projects
On Monday, remarkable students from every province presented the judges with 14 truly cutting-edge biotechnology projects related to health, agriculture and the environment. All were previous prize-winners at regional SABC competitions held across Canada in April.
All 13 to 19 years old and enrolled in Grades 9 through 12, the students were mentored by university professors and others who volunteer their expertise and many hours over several months each year to assist these young researchers.
How a 16-year-old used a supercomputer to find a promising new treatment for cystic fibrosis
Grade 11 student Marshall Zhang impressed many experts when he used the Canadian SCINET supercomputing network to discover a new and potentially effective drug cocktail to treat cystic fibrosis.
The results demonstrated the usefulness of computer-based approaches to discover drug-like compounds.
“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.
CF is a common, fatal genetic disease where the lungs’ normal protective coating of thin mucus becomes thick and sticky — an inviting environment for serious, sometimes fatal bacterial infections. A genetic mutation is responsible for most cases of CF. Leading research currently in clinical trials suggests that specific drugs may help correct this defect.
At Dr. Bear’s lab at Sick Kids, Marshall 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.
Marshall 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 Marshall.
“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 experience 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 Dr. Bear.
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The national competition finalists:
Greater Montreal (2nd place, and special judges’ prize for the project with greatest commercial potential)
Jonatham Khouzam, Simon Leclerc and Francis Marcogliese, all 19-year-old CEGEP students at College Jean de Brebeuf, Montreal
Students develop vegetable-based stabilizers, remove animal ingredients from sorbet
Eastern Ontario (3rd place)
Shannon Watson, 18, Grade 12, Canterbury High School, Ottawa
What fights bad, antibiotic-resistant bacteria? Good bacteria in fermented milk from Zambia
Calgary (4th place)
Yasamin Mahjoub, 16, Grade 11, Sir Winston Churchill High School
Effects of pregnancy on multiple sclerosis suggest a new line of treatment
Manitoba (5th place)
Siyuan Cheng, 14, Grade 9, Fort Richmond Collegiate, Winnipeg
Grade 9 student opens door to treatment of incurable leukemia
British Columbia
Vincent Ye, 18, Grade 12, Dr. Charles Best Secondary School, Coquitlam
Student uses 3D imaging to show how drinking alcohol shrinks brain cells
Catherine Fan and Jessica Li, both 17, Grade 12, Old Scona Academic High School
Students’ discovery may go to clinical trial as a new treatment for common hospital infection
Nova Scotia
Samantha Wright-Smith, 16, Grade 11, South Colchester Academy, Brookfield
Student grows bacteria that could aid oil spill cleanups
New Brunswick
Camille Champigny, 15, Grade 10, École l’Odysée, Moncton
Coming to grips with the health dangers of pesticides
Northern Manitoba
Emily Klekta, 16, Grade 11, Swan Valley Regional Secondary School, Swan River
Student finds faster way to grow vegetables in short, cold climate growing season
Hannah Boone, 14, Grade 9, St. Paul’s Jr. High School, St. John’s and Megan Howse, 15, Grade 10, O’Donel High School, Mt. Pearl
Is green tea the ticket to better heart health?
Prince Edward Island, Samuel Mundy, 18, and Hardy Strom, 17, Grade 12, Three Oaks Senior High School, Summerside
Students find fungus that eats oil
Southwestern Ontario
Jessie MacAlpine, 15, Grade 10, Huron Park Secondary School, Woodstock
Turning an noxious weed into a green herbicide
Pranay Pratijit, 15, Evan Hardy Collegiate, Prakriti Pratijit, 13, Walter Murray Collegiate, Saskatoon
Students develop wheat with major health benefits
Greater Toronto
Marshall Zhang, 16, Grade 11, Bayview Secondary School, Richmond Hill
Student explores supercomputer network to look for cure for cystic fibrosis
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Chaired by Dr. Luis Barreto, former Vice President, Immunization and Science Policy, Sanofi Pasteur Limited, the distinguished national judging panel consists of:
Dr. Roman Szumski, Vice President, Life Sciences, National Research Council Canada
Dr. Pierre Meulien, President and CEO, Genome Canada
Dr. Alain Beaudet, President, Canadian Institutes of Health Research
Dr. Ron Pearlman, Associate Scientific Director, The Gairdner Foundation
Dr. Denis Kay, Director, BioTalent Canada
Dr. Lesley Warren, Professor, Biogeochemistry, McMaster University
Brian Krug, 17, of John F. Ross C.V.I., Guelph, second place national SABC winner 2010.
The SABC was initiated by Canada’s Sanofi Pasteur Ltd. in 1994 as a regional science competition and has since expanded to national and international levels.
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.
National competition supporters:
* Sanofi Pasteur and sanofi-aventis
* BioTalent Canada
* National Research Council of Canada
* Genome Canada
* Canadian Institutes for Health Research
* The Government of Canada’s Sector Council Program.
Winning student teams share their cash prize with their school. In some cities, regional winners also receive university scholarships or summer jobs.
The competition mirrors the real world of scientific research by
* Requiring students to submit research proposals for evaluation by a scientific evaluation committee;
* Providing up to $200 in advance funding to approved student projects;
* Assigning mentors to each team to provide expert advice and access to equipment and supplies; and
* Having each student project judged by fellow students (peer review) and by judges representing government, business, academia and the education community.
A distinguishing characteristic of the competition is the emphasis judges place on the competitors’ communication of science ideas.
Many regional competition events include lectures by leading local biotechnology researchers, science workshops for students and teachers, and exhibits on biotechnology.
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About Sanofi
Sanofi, a global and diversified healthcare leader, discovers, develops and distributes therapeutic solutions focused on patients’ needs. Sanofi has core strengths in the field of healthcare with seven growth platforms: diabetes solutions, human vaccines, innovative drugs, rare diseases, consumer healthcare, emerging markets and animal health.
Sanofi Pasteur, the vaccines division of Sanofi, provides more than 1 billion doses of vaccine each year, making it possible to immunize more than 500 million people across the globe. A world leader in the vaccine industry, Sanofi Pasteur offers the broadest range of vaccines protecting against 20 infectious diseases. The company’s heritage, to create vaccines that protect life, dates back more than a century. Sanofi Pasteur is the largest company entirely dedicated to vaccines. Every day, the company invests more than EUR 1 million in research and development. For more information:
About BioTalent Canada
BioTalent Canada helps Canada’s bio-economy industry thrive globally. As a non-profit national organization of innovators leading our bio-economy, BioTalent Canada anticipates needs and creates new opportunities, delivering human resources tools, information and skills development to ensure the industry has access to job-ready people. BioTalent Canada is a Canadian sector council, one of many partnership organizations created to address skills-development issues in key sectors of the economy. For more information:, BioTalent Canada 613-235-1402 x.229


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