Student, 16, progresses experimental way to kill cancer with gold nano 'bullets,' marvels experts

April 9th, 2013
Arjun Nair, 16, a Grade 11 Calgary student, won the top $5,000 prize in the 2013 Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada. A panel of eminent Canadian scientists assembled at the Ottawa headquarters of the National Research Council of Canada, also awarded his cancer research a special $1,000 prize for the project with the greatest commercial potential. Arjun and second prize winner Selin Jessa of Vancouver will represent Canada in the International BioGENEius Challenge, BIO conference, Chicago, April 22-23. Credit: Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada
Cutting edge research into an experimental therapy that deploys nano-particles of gold in the fight against cancer earned an Alberta high school student, 16, top national honours today in the 2013 "Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada" (SBCC).

India-born Arjun Nair, 16, a Grade 11 student at Webber Academy, Calgary, was awarded the top prize of $5,000 by a panel of eminent Canadian scientists assembled at the Ottawa headquarters of the National Research Council of Canada (NRC).

His research project, mentored at the University of Calgary, advances an experimental cancer "photothermal therapy" which involves injecting a patient with gold nanoparticles. The particles accumulate in tumours, forming so-called "nano-bullets" that can be heated to kill cancer cells.

Arjun showed how an antibiotic may overcome the cancer's defences and make the promising treatment more effective. Arjun's research, which a panel of expert judges led by Luis Barreto, MD, called "world class Masters or PhD-level quality," also won a special $1,000 prize awarded to the project with the greatest commercial potential. (See full project description below, and online at http://bit.ly/12i4QIP)

Eleven brilliant students from nine Canadian regions, all just 16 to 18 years old, took part in the national finals. They had placed 1st at earlier regional SBCC competitions, conducted between March 21 and April 4.

Celebrating 20 years of inspiring young scientists in Canada, this year's SBCC involved a total of 208 high school students collaborating on 123 projects, all mentored in professional labs over several months and submitted via the regional competitions.

Since its beginning in Toronto in 1994, some 4,500 young Canadians have competed in the SBCC, an event that has inspired sister BioGENEius competitions in the USA and Australia.

2nd place, $4,000—British Columbia: Selin Jessa, 17, Grade 12, Dr. Charles Best Secondary School, Coquitlam, won the second place prize with research into how genetic mutations naturally help some HIV patients escape symptoms. Project description: http://bit.ly/16u1zZj

Arjun and Selin will compete for Canada April 22-23 at the International BioGENEius Challenge, conducted at the annual BIO conference, this year in Chicago.

3rd place, $3,000—Quebec: Eunice Linh You, 17, Grade 11, Laval Liberty High School, Laval, who investigated how to tailor stem cell treatments for Parkinson's disease (see http://bit.ly/YtJJnq)

4th place, $2,000—Greater Toronto: Lauren Chan, 17, Grade 12, University of Toronto Schools, who described a potential new therapy to reduce the severity of diabetes (see http://bit.ly/YQKWon)

5th place, $1,000—Manitoba: Daniel Huang, 16, Grade 11, St. John's Ravenscourt School, Winnipeg, who discovered a potential new tactic to fight the world's deadliest brain cancer (see http://bit.ly/14LeurK)

Honorable mention, $500:

Jared Trask, 18, Kaitlyn Stockley, 17, Grade 12, Holy Spirit High School, Conception Bay West, Newfoundland, who, for the second consecutive year, won the Atlantic region competition by proving novel ideas for creating biofuels (see http://bit.ly/YZkOVp);

Adamo Young, 16, Grade 11, Lisgar Collegiate Institute, Ottawa, Ontario, who found that altering its nitrogen supply appears to tame a toxic fungus that ruins billions worth of grain worldwide (see http://bit.ly/YtJOaB);

Melanie Grondin, 17, Shawn Liu, 18, Vincent Massey Secondary School, Windsor, Ontario, who found a marker in medicine's quest for the holy grail of leukaemia treatments: limitless supplies of healthy stem cells (see http://bit.ly/XGWICS).

Saruul Uuganbayar, 17, Grade 12, Centennial Collegiate, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, who invented a molecular therapy for mutated cells with the dream of curing cancer (see http://bit.ly/XGWBqX); and

Following the presentation ceremony at the NRC, Governor-General David Johnston, a distinguished educator prior to his vice-regal appointment, received the students at Rideau Hall.

Dr. Kellie Leitch, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources Skills Development and keynote speaker at the awards ceremony, said: "It is so important that we have all of our skills and talent at work in Canada and the SBCC offers students a fantastic opportunity to experience science and technology in new ways, hopefully encouraging them toward exciting careers. I want to congratulate the winners, and all of the participants, of this year's competition and I thank the organizers for all of the work that they have done in supporting young people in science."

Sanofi Canada President and CEO Jon Fairest, who presented the top national prize, said: "The Sanofi Group is very proud to be founding sponsors of the Sanofi BioGENEIus Challenge Canada (SBCC) and participate in this milestone competition. With its 20-year heritage, the SBCC shows how critical partnerships are to advance science and talent in Canada. From the mentoring provided by dedicated academics, to the support of government and the private sector, the SBCC truly stands out as a model for collaboration. The SBCC and the incredible students who participate inspire us to all think differently about our future and ensure we have a strong foundation in place to create a sustainable healthcare system in Canada."

The SBCC gives young scientists access to professional labs and academic mentors, encouraging the pursuit of future studies and careers in the country's fast-growing biotechnology sector.

Each of the students worked for months conducting research and collaborating with university mentors.

Aiming to create an effective cancer-killing nano-bullet made of gold

Helping science develop a nano-bullet to defeat cancer is the futuristic vision of Arjun Nair, a 16-year-old Calgary high school student.

These "bullets" are formed by gold nanoparticles that, when injected into a patient, accumulate in cancerous tumours. Using light, the gold nanoparticles rapidly heat up in the tumours, killing only the cancer cells. Known as photothermal therapy (PTT), the idea has shown promise but isn't that effective because cancer cells fight back, producing heat-shock proteins to protect themselves.

Arjun looked into the use of an antibiotic (17-AAG) to defeat cancer's defence.

Nanoparticles are less than millionth of the size of grain of sand, making them pretty difficult to make and work with, says Arjun. He spent the last two years working on his idea, including the past year between Simon Trudel's and David Cramb's Nanoscience Labs at the University of Calgary.

It's rare for a high-tech lab to allow a high school student to work with its expensive equipment but Dr. Cramb, Dr. Simon Trudel and Lab Manager, Amy Tekrony provided access and all important mentorship, he says.

"Proof-of-concepts were developed and tested in order to demonstrate the viability of PTT," says Arjun. "Moreover, after analyzing the literature a mathematical model was developed to evaluate a theoretical synergetic treatment."

"I've entered science competitions since Grade 5. I really enjoy taking my ideas and making them happen in real life," says Arjun, who also enjoys debating, sports and volunteer work.

He dreams of doing science in university, perhaps pursuing a career in medical research. One of the best parts of the competition was the great friendships Arjun has made. "I'm part of community of students who love sharing ideas and talking science."

Provided by Bioscience Education Canada

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