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Calgary teen wins top biotechnology prize for cancer research

Arjun Nair, a Grade 11 student at Webber Academy in Calgary, is shown in Ottawa on April 9, 2013.

DAVE CHAN/The Globe and Mail

Some 16-year-olds are content to blast away at digital foes in video games. Arjun Nair prefers taking aim at cancer.

A Grade 11 student at Webber Academy in Calgary, Mr. Nair is this year's winner of the Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada, a daunting biotechnology competition that seeks to identify and develop promising young scientists. His research project topped the field of 11 finalists selected in regional competitions across the country. Mr. Nair also won an additional prize awarded to a project on the basis of its commercial potential.

"I was very surprised," Mr. Nair said after the awards ceremony held at the National Research Council in Ottawa on Tuesday. "There are so many awesome projects here."

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Mr. Nair's research delved into a still-experimental technique known as "photothermal therapy." The method involves the use of gold nanoparticles – microscopically small clusters of gold atoms that can be engineered to accumulate around tumour cells. When exposed to infrared light, the gold heats up rapidly and can disrupt the tumour cells without harming healthy cells nearby. Groups working in several labs around the world have been exploring the method's potential as a cancer treatment, but the cancer cells are tenacious and can resist the heat damage with specialized proteins.

Mr. Nair's idea was to disarm those proteins with an antibiotic to improve the effectiveness of the photothermal technique. He developed a mathematical model to evaluate the treatment and tested the notion with tissue cultures of live cancer cells.

"We saw some promising results," said Mr. Nair, who added that his work shows the combined therapy approach is "viable" and could be developed further.

Now in its 20th year, the competition places emphasis on connecting student participants with science as it is actually practised – an experience that is almost entirely lacking in high-school science classrooms or even in undergraduate lecture halls. All participants have professional researchers as mentors who provide feedback and access to laboratory resources. Mr. Nair's mentors include chemists who specialize in nanoscience at the University of Calgary.

David Cramb, director of the university's nanoscience program, said he was struck by Nr. Nair's instincts as an investigator as well as his perseverance. "Science rarely goes the way you plan it," Prof. Cramb said, "and I think that's a really good life lesson for someone who is 16."

Selin Jessa, a Grade 12 student at Dr. Charles Best Secondary School in Vancouver, won second place in the competition for her work on a mutated version of an HIV protein that occurs in a small group of patients whose immune systems can naturally control the virus. Ms. Jessa said the hundreds of hours she spent pursuing the project cemented her interest in science as a career choice.

"I loved all aspects of the research process, from being in the lab itself to looking at the literature to trying to come up with conclusions," she said.

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Students who do well in the competition are generally motivated by a desire to solve real problems, said Rick Levick, executive director of Bioscience Education Canada, which runs the competition. "They want to make the world a better place using science."

Mr. Nair and Ms. Jessa will present their work later this month in Chicago, where they will compete against student scientists from the United States and Australia.

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