Creating new insight into HIV-AIDS virus wins Canada's top student biotech prize

Grade 11 Ottawa-area scientist, 16, wins competition judged by experts at National Research Council

Research by a 16-year-old Ottawa-area student that contributes new insights into the workings of the HIV-AIDS virus has earned top prize in the 2006 National sanofi-aventis biotech challenge, announced today in a ceremony at the National Research Council.

Grade 11 student James McLeod bested 12 fellow regional finalists from across Canada with a study into how the HIV/AIDS virus attacks specific cells in the body's immune system.

In addition to James McLeod of Kanata (1st prize, $5,000), the top prizes went to David Wang of London (2nd place, $4,000), Kartik Madiraju of Montreal (3rd place, $3,000) Philip Edgcumbe and Maxim Winther of Vancouver (4th place, $2,000) and Emily Cooley of Calgary (5th place, $1,000).

London's David Wang and Marzieh Ghiasi of Halifax tied for a special prize recognizing research with the greatest commercial potential.

David genetically engineered tobacco plants to produce human interleukin 13, an anti?inflammatory protein with the potential to prevent or treat juvenile diabetes. Marzieh's research revealed how certain bacteria could be used to remove arsenic from drinking water. Both won a special $1,000 honorarium.

McLeod won the $5,000 top Canadian prize after a cross-country series of student presentations via videoconference yesterday to a panel of seven distinguished scientists at the National Research Council in Ottawa.

Understanding how the HIV-AIDS virus attacks the body's immune system

Necessity may be the mother of invention but curiosity is surely a close relative. It was last year in a Grade 10 health class discussion about the HIV-AIDS virus that curiosity got the better of James McLeod.

"Our teacher was explaining how the virus attacks specific cells in the body's immune system," James, 16, recalls. "I remember thinking about that process and wondering why it happens. My teacher loaned me some university textbooks and it all just developed from there."

Now in Grade 11 at All Saints High School, Kanata, and mentored by Dr. Angela Crawley and Jonathan Angel of the Ottawa Health Research Institute, James focused his research on T-cells, important components of a healthy immune system. He wanted to know if there was a genetic explanation for the rapid death of T-cells, and the associated compromised state of the immune system, which is a hallmark of advanced stages of HIV-AIDS infection.

By examining RNA transcripts of particular T-cells, James 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.

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

The success of the project has pushed biotechnology up a few spots on James' list of possible career choices, but he's in no hurry to decide. "I've got another year of high school and a lot of things I'm interested in," he says.

Some of the brightest young scientists in Canada

In remarks at the ceremony, NRC Vice-President Dr. Roman Szumski, who served as one of the judges, said finalists in this competition "represent some of the brightest young scientists in Canada and I congratulate them all on their outstanding achievements. The NRC is proud to be part of this program and we look forward to future competitions."

He thanked the competition sponsor and Sanofi Pasteur Limited President Mark Lievonen for helping foster an appreciation of science education.

The teams and individuals representing their cities and regions in the 2006 national competition, from east to west:

NEWFOUNDLAND & LABRADOR
Brief project description: How anti-oxidants reduce post-stroke brain damage, promote recovery
www.biotechchallenge.ca/downloads/Regions/EasternNewfoundland/Newfoundland_Nashila_Addita.doc
Nashila Addetia, Holy Heart of Mary High School, St. John's

PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND
Brief project description: Using horse tears as a new way to diagnose equine eye disease
www.biotechchallenge.ca/downloads/General_information/National_Information/2006/StudentProfiles/pei_final.doc
Whitney Kelly-Clark, Charlottetown Rural High School

NOVA SCOTIA
Brief project description: Using bacteria to remove arsenic from drinking water
www.biotechchallenge.ca/downloads/General_information/National_Information/2006/StudentProfiles/Novia_Scotia_Marzieh_Ghiasi.doc
Marzieh Ghiasi, Queen Elizabeth High School, Halifax

NEW BRUNSWICK
Brief project description: Helping plants' natural defence system ward off viruses
www.biotechchallenge.ca/downloads/General_information/National_Information/2006/StudentProfiles/New_Brunswick_06.doc
Emma Strople and Kayla Kavanagh, Fredericton High School

MONTREAL
Brief project description: Finding a new electrity source in bacteria
www.biotechchallenge.ca/downloads/General_information/National_Information/2006/StudentProfiles/montreal_final.doc
Kartik Madiraju, Centennial Regional High School

EASTERN ONTARIO
Brief project description (see above): Understanding how the HIV-AIDS virus attacks the body's immune system
James MacLeod, All Saints High School, Kanata, Ontario

TORONTO
Brief project description: Stalking the evolution of corn
www.biotechchallenge.ca/downloads/Regions/GreaterToronto/Greater_Toronto_Elena_Kwan.doc
Elena Kwan, Northern Secondary School

LONDON
Brief project description: Using engineered tobacco plants to help treat diabetes
http://www.biotechchallenge.ca/downloads/Regions/London/london_final.doc
David Wang, A.B. Lucas Secondary School

MANITOBA
Brief project description: Improving classification of breast cancer tumors
www.biotechchallenge.ca/downloads/General_information/National_Information/2006/StudentProfiles/Manitoba_George_Deng.doc
George Guojin Deng, Kelvin High School

SASKATCHWAN
Brief project description: How soy can help fight cancer
www.biotechchallenge.ca/downloads/General_information/National_Information/2006/StudentProfiles/sask_final.doc
Howard Meng and Bobby Xiao, Walter Murray Collegiate

EDMONTON
Brief project description: New computer models that could help hunt for cancer cure
www.biotechchallenge.ca/downloads/General_information/National_Information/2006/StudentProfiles/edmonton_final.doc
Priyanka Kedarisetti and Ankita Gupta, Harry Ainlay Composite High School

CALGARY
Brief project description: Improving osteoporosis and bone replacement therapies
www.biotechchallenge.ca/downloads/General_information/National_Information/2006/StudentProfiles/Calgary_Emily_Cooley.doc
Emily Cooley, Queen Elizabeth Junior/Senior High School

BRITISH COLUMBIA
Brief project description: Revealing how Vitamin C protects brain issue
www.biotechchallenge.ca/downloads/Regions/BritishColumbia/bc_final.doc
Philip Edgcumbe and Maxim Winther, Kitsilano Secondary School

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The sanofi-aventis biotech challenge is a high-level national competition that introduces students to the real world of biotechnology by carrying out research projects of their own design.

Each of the student teams work with a mentor in their community who provides expert advice and access to equipment and supplies. Many students who compete go on to pursue careers in biotechnology, healthcare, agriculture, and the environment.

Senior officials from the federal public service and the private sector served as judges.

  • Dr. Alan Bernstein (Chair of the judging panel)
    President, Canadian Institute of Health Research
  • Dr. Luis Barreto
    Vice President Public Affairs, Sanofi Pasteur Limited
  • Dr. Roman Szumski
    Vice President, National Research Council
  • Mr. Dupuis Angers
    Chair, Biotechnology Human Resource Council
  • Dr. Alec MacKenzie,
    Director of Research, Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario
  • Dr. Elwyn Griffiths,
    Associate Director-General, Biologics and Genetic Therapies Directorate, Health Canada
  • Dr. Janet King
    Director General, Life Sciences Branch, Industry Canada

Speaking on behalf of the judges, Sanofi Pasteur Limited Vice-President Luis Barreto said: "The competition has presented an increasing challenge in last five years; the quality of science never stops surprising the judges. It is gratifying, however, to see that the future of biotechnology in Canada is in good hands."

Background

National sponsors of the competition:

  • Sanofi pasteur
  • Pasteur Foundation
  • Human Resources and Skills Development Canada
  • National Research Council of Canada
  • Genome Canada
  • Canadian Institutes of Health Research
  • Biotechnology Human Resource Council and
  • the Canada Foundation for Innovation

Each regional competition also includes cash prizes. They are supported by local companies, educational institutions, industry organizations and government agencies. More than 100 organizations are partnered in this educational outreach initiative.

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.

Winning student teams share their cash prize with their school. In some cities, winning students also receive university scholarships or summer jobs.

Many of the events also include lectures by some of local community's leading biotechnology researchers, science workshops for students and teachers, and exhibits on biotechnology.


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