Grade 12 researcher wins top honors at 2012 Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada

An Ontario girl, 16, who invented a disease-fighting, anti-aging compound using nano-particles from trees, won top national honours today in the 2012 Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada (SBCC).

Her super anti-oxidant compound could one day help improve health and anti-aging products by neutralizing more of the harmful free-radicals found in the body. Her research is detailed below.

Janelle Tam, a Grade 12 student at Waterloo Collegiate Institute, was awarded the $5,000 first prize by an impressed panel of eminent Canadian scientists assembled at the Ottawa headquarters of the National Research Council of Canada.

In all, some 13 brilliant students in Grades 11 or 12, all just 16 to 18 years old, took part in the national finals. They were top prize winners of nine regional SBCC competitions conducted nationwide in March and April, events that showcased youthful Canadian talent in the fast-growing field of biotech science.

The theme of the competition, "How will you change the world?" inspired hundreds of students to participate in 2012 SBCC events Canada-wide.

2nd place ($4,000), was awarded to Rui Song, 16, a Grade 11 student from Walter Murray Collegiate, Saskatoon, for developing new insights into the potential creation of a more nutritious lentil (project profile: ). It is Rui's second major award at the national SBCC; she won first prize in 2010 when she was in Grade 9.

3rd place ($3,000): Alexander Tigert and Zelun (Daniel) Zhang, both 17, Grade 12, Northern Secondary School, who used genetically-modified Baker's yeast to create a novel environment for testing the effects of drug treatments for depression and anxiety. Project profile:

4th place ($2,000): Ella Thomson, 16, Grade 11, Balmoral Hall School, Winnipeg, who genetically modified a common soil bacteria to produce 36% more volume of the bio-ingredient used to make eco-friendly plastic. Project profile:

5th place ($1,000): Romina Hassanzadeh, 17, Grade 12, All Saints Catholic High School, Kanata, who puzzled out a new insight into the workings of a cancer-fighting drug, a discovery that could one day impact medical approaches to cancer treatment. Project profile:

A special $1,000 prize for the project deemed to have the greatest commercial potential was awarded to Miranda Wang, 18, and Jeanny Yao, 17, both Grade 12, Magee Secondary School, Vancouver, who identified soil bacteria from the Fraser River estuary that naturally break down phthalates, a fossil fuel-based additive found in some plastics.

The girls have already approached firms in British Columbia and Ontario on potential commercialization ideas. Project profile:

Honorable mention prizes of $500 were awarded to:

Nikola Viktorov and Andy Le, 16, Grade 11, from Old Scona Academic High School, Edmonton, who lit a potential path to the development of drugs that more effectively target diseased cells, creating a tool to help monitor the death of cells in lymphoma cancer. Project profile:

Jared Trask, 17 and Kaitlyn Stockley, 16, Grade 11 students at Holy Spirit High School, Conception Bay West, NF, who used a centrifuge, chemicals and high frequency sound waves to extract a bio-fuel oil from local-obtained cold environment algae. Project profile:


Nivatha Balendra, 16, Grade 11, from Royal West Academy, Montreal, who found Isopropanol to be the better alcohol to use in hand sanitizers because it kills more bacteria and fewer skin cells than ethanol, the more common ingredient in such products. Project profile:

The students' national winnings add to those awarded in the regional competitions. In some cities, regional winners also receive university scholarships and/or summer jobs.

On June 18, Janelle Tam and Rui Song will represent Canada in Boston at the Sanofi-sponsored International BioGENEius Challenge, taking place in conjunction with the BIO Annual International Convention.

A powerful anti-oxidant discovered in tree pulp

Canada's next big technological and health breakthrough might come from cellulose, the woody material found in trees that enables them to stand. Cellulose is made up of tiny nano-particles called nano-crystalline cellulose (NCC) that are measured in thousandths of the width of a human hair.

Only recently discovered, Waterloo's Janelle Tam is the first to show that NCC is a powerful antioxidant, and may be superior to Vitamin C or E because it is more stable and its effectiveness won't diminish as quickly.

"NCC is non-toxic, stable, soluble in water and renewable, since it comes from trees," says Janelle, a Grade 12 student at Waterloo Collegiate Institute.

NCC has many unique properties: stronger than steel but flexible, durable and ultra light. Its potential uses are virtually limitless. Canada's national forest research institute, FPInnovations, predicts a $250 million dollar market in the coming decade.

The world's first large-scale NCC production plant opened in January at a pulp and paper mill in Windsor, Quebec. NCC is extracted from cellulose using a chemical process similar to that used in pulp mills.

"NCC is really a hot field of research in Canada," says Janelle, who notes that antioxidants have anti-aging and health promotion properties, including wound healing since they neutralize "free radicals" that damage or kill cells.

Janelle chemically 'paired' NCC with a well-known nano-particle called a buckminster fullerene. These 'buckyballs' (carbon molecules that look like a soccer ball) are already used in cosmetic and anti-aging products she says. The new NCC-buckyball combination acted like a 'nano-vacuum,' sucking up free radicals and neutralizing them.

"The results were really exciting," she says and especially since cellulose is already used as filler and stabilizer in many vitamin products. One day those products may be super-charged free radical neutralizers thanks to NCC, she hopes.

Dr. Yao was deeply impressed by Janelle's hardworking, creative thinking, organization and presentation skills. "It was a pleasure to have her in my lab since Janelle is not only a task-orientated young lady, also she also gets along very well with others."

Janelle, who moved to Canada from Singapore five years ago, and who with her sister Vivienne won first place in last year's SBCC Southwestern Ontario regional competition, says she loves the independence and opportunity to do original research that the Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge offers. She hopes to become a medical doctor and researcher.

The Hon. Diane Finley, Minister of Human Resources Skills Development Canada and keynote speaker at the awards ceremony, said: "Our government's top priority is job creation, and economic growth and we recognize that as the future workforce, young Canadians have much to contribute to our country's long term prosperity. We proudly support the BioGENEius Challenge as an excellent way to inspire young people to explore rewarding careers in high demand fields."

Sanofi Pasteur Canada President Mark Lievonen, who presented the first place prize, said: "When we founded the Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada 19 years ago we believed then, as we do now, in the potential of our youth to develop the next big breakthrough in science. When I see the collaboration among education, government and industry at the SBCC each year, I am increasingly optimistic about Canada's opportunity to truly make a difference in the world."

Now in its 19th year, the SBCC gives young scientists access to university labs and academic mentors, encouraging the pursuit of future studies and careers in the country's fast-growing biotechnology sector. This year, more than 240 high school and CEGEP students across Canada submitted192 projects that ranged from exploring potential new drug treatments for Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis and cancer to using mold fungi as an alternative to traditional pesticides.

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

The nine national finalists presented their projects at NRC headquarters Monday May 7 to a panel of eminent Canadian scientists:

Dr. Luis Barreto (Chief Judge), Senior Advisor, Vaccine Program, Human Health and Therapeutics, National Research Council Canada, and ex-Vice President, Immunization and Science Policy, Sanofi Pasteur Limited;

Dr. Jim Richards, Director General, Vaccine Program, Human Health and Therapeutics, National Research Council Canada;

Dr. Alain Beaudet, President, Canadian Institutes of Health Research;

Dr. Ron Pearlman, Associate Scientific Director, The Gairdner Foundation;

Dr. John Kelly, Vice-President, Erie Innovation and Commercialization, Ontario Fruit & Vegetable Growers' Association; and

Dr. Alison Symington, Vice President, Outreach, Ontario Genomics Institute.

Also on the judging panel was Marshall Zhang, 18, of Richmond Hill Collegiate, national first-place winner of the SBCC in 2011.

"Every young person that gets to this level of competition is a winner and I congratulate them equally," said chief judge Luis Barreto. "Credit goes to all the students and mentors from coast to coast who took part in this year's event. There is great talent across our country. Every one of the participants and their talent left the judges in genuine delight."

The award ceremony at the NRC also included a special presentation honouring the contribution to SBCC of Jeff Graham of Toronto, Chair and President of Bioscience Education Canada, which has coordinated the competition from its beginning in 1994.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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