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Teens Unveil Groundbreaking Research at Biotech Challenge

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James Macleod, 16, is working hard to make the world a better place.

A Grade 12 student at All Saints Catholic High School in Ottawa, James won the top prize at the 2006 National Sanofi-Aventis Biotech Challenge for his research investigating the possibility of a genetic explanation for the rapid death of T-cells - an important component of a healthy immune system - in the advanced stages of HIV infection.

Entitled "Cytokine Regulation of IL-7 Receptor Alpha Gene Expression," the winning project examined RNA transcripts of particular T-cells and found that a protein molecule called CD127 was preventing the delivery of a "survival signal" by a hormone called interleukin-7, which is needed for the development, survival and proliferation of T-cells.

Dr. Roman Szumski, Vice-President, Life Sciences at the NRC and member of the 2006 National Sanofi-Aventis Biotech Challenge judging panel, congratulates James MacLeod from All Saints Catholic High School in Ottawa on his first place win.
Dr. Roman Szumski, Vice-President, Life Sciences at the NRC and member of the 2006 National Sanofi-Aventis Biotech Challenge judging panel, congratulates James MacLeod from All Saints Catholic High School in Ottawa on his first place win.

"Now that we have a detailed picture of what is happening to the T-cells, we can look at therapies designed to prevent it," said James.

To qualify for this high-level competition, students were tasked with designing and conducting research projects in biotechnology. They developed the project idea, were paired with mentors from the field, and set to work months ago.

Students participated in regional competitions before advancing to the national finals, which were held on May 10th. With the support of NRC facilities across Canada, 13 regional winners presented their projects via video conference to a panel of judges located at the NRC Montreal Road campus in Ottawa. The panel – composed of senior officials from the federal public service and the private sector, including Dr. Szumski, VP Life Sciences at NRC – evaluated each project for relevance to biotechnology, innovation, and level of science.

The category evaluating the commercial potential of a project was judged separately, in a very unique manner. Judges were given a ballot representing one million dollars and asked to select the project in which they would most likely invest their money. David Wang from A.B. Lucas Secondary School in London, Ontario, tied for his project using genetically engineered tobacco plants to produce human interleukin 13, an anti‑inflammatory protein with the potential to prevent or treat juvenile diabetes.

"I wanted to take on the world," said Marzieh Ghiasi, a student at Queen Elizabeth High School in Halifax whose project investigating methods to enhance the efficiency of oxidizing bacteria in removing arsenic from water systems was also awarded the project with the most commercial potential.  "I wanted to do so many things and my mentor told me to concentrate on one specific goal."

In addition to helping students focus their research, mentors in the field of biotech provide valuable support to contestants by familiarizing them with lab work and sophisticated equipment.

James MacLeod stands proudly with his winning research project, "Cytokine Regulation of IL-7 Receptor Alpha Gene Expression."
James MacLeod stands proudly with his winning research project, "Cytokine Regulation of IL-7 Receptor Alpha Gene Expression."

Following his experience as a judge at the 2004 regional competition in Montréal, Mr. Moises Freitas-Andrade, Ph.D. candidate at the NRC Institute for Biological Sciences (NRC-IBS) decided to become a mentor. He wanted to show young people that science was exciting and that the scientific method was as much a creative process as it was analytical. His support and enthusiasm helped students Philip Saaltink and Min Zhang, both from Gloucester High School in Ottawa, make it all the way to the 2006 Eastern Ontario regional competition for their research on the effect of Panax ginseng on U87MG tumour cells.

"The enthusiasm shown by the students was incredible," said Mr. Freitas-Andrade. "I soon realized that you are never too old or too young to learn and be excited about science." 

The winners of the national competition were announced on May 11th at a special ceremony hosted by Dr. Roman Szumski at 100 Sussex Drive in Ottawa. Dr. Colin Carrie, Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Industry, also participated in the prestigious event that was web cast to all the regional competitors across Canada.

"I am pleased that the NRC raises awareness about emerging sciences and encourages students to consider careers in biotechnology," said Dr. Szumski.