16-year-old Arjun Nair has seen too many people in his life suffer from cancer. So he’s following in the footsteps of so many other brilliant teenagers and hunting for a solution. Nair took first place (and $5,000) in the 2013 Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada, an annual competition challenging Canadian high schoolers to come up with innovative biotechnology projects. His project: creating a more effective nano-bullet to kill cancer.
Photothermal therapy (PTT), an experimental therapy that involves injecting cancer-killing "bullets" made out of gold nanoparticles into patients, is a well-known technique in the cancer world. It’s promising—the nanoparticles kill cancer cells without harming the healthy surrounding cells—but it hasn’t been that effective so far, mainly because cancer cells respond to the therapy by generating heat shock proteins that protect them from death. That’s where Nair’s research comes in.
"I was trying to figure out a way to treat cancer without the side effects associated with chemotherapy," he says. "I was looking at a way to treat cancer cells without using too many chemicals."
For the past two years (including one year getting mentorship from scientist David Cramb at his University of Calgary lab), Nair has been working on a way to stop cancer cells from withstanding PPT. Eventually, he came up with the idea to use an antibiotic called 17-AAG to break down cancer cells’ defenses from PPT. Like PPT itself, it’s a promising idea—but there’s still a long way to go.
"We’ve seen some promising results. It has the viability and the potential to work," says Nair. The young scientist has tested his theory on live cancer cell tissue cultures; the next step is trying it out on live animal models. As for that $5,000? "I’ll probably use it for more research," he says.