A 17-year-old Edmonton high school student has won top honours at an international science competition for her project that examines CAR T-cell therapy, an alternative cancer treatment.
Elizabeth Chen, a Grade 12 student at Old Scona Academic School, was awarded a first prize at the European Union Contest for Young Scientists (EUCYS) in Brussels Sept. 12-17.
To qualify for the competition in Belgium, Chen first had to win at regional and national levels.
“It was completely life changing,” said Chen of her first trip to Europe.
She said meeting all the people involved was the best part of the week.
“Meeting everyone, meeting the youth, meeting the judges, meeting the national organizers, meeting everyone who is able to make youth science work both in Europe and all across the world really, because there were a lot of different countries that were not part of the EU there.”
Chen said she was amazed by all the different ideas her peers presented.
“There were people who made things out of spiderwebs. There were people who made parts of rockets. It’s just ridiculous, the amount of things people can come up. And these are people ages 14to 20, which is ridiculous to me.”
Chen’s project was inspired by Terry Fox.
“I would do the run every single year and I would knock on doors and fundraise and in my head there was always this question: ‘OK, why don’t we have a cure for cancer? It doesn’t make sense. I’m knocking on doors. We’re raising so much money, but we don’t have a cure.'”
“The reason for that is there really isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for that. And that’s because cancer can be different for each patient, based on the stage, based on the patient’s background, etc., there’s a lot of reasons. And so personalized treatments are becoming a lot more important,” Chen explained.
She decided to focus on acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the leading type of cancer in children. Conventional cancer treatments, Chen said, can be really hard on the body.
“My project was focused on something very specific, which was looking at predicting patient response to CAR T-cell therapy,” she continued. “After those CAR T-cells go into that patient’s body, how are they going to respond, and can we predict that, and can we predict what kind of treatments we can use?”
All her work was computational, using data from a clinical trial.
“I guess if I get into the nitty gritty, it’s more about candidate genetic biomarkers. These are genes that are highly correlated with a certain condition and once you have those, you can kind of predict things.”
Chen was thrilled to represent Canada on the world stage.
The other Canadian, Arushi Nath of Toronto, won second prize for her asteroid algorithm project.
Arushi, who’s from Toronto, designed an algorithm to measure the characteristics of an asteroid.
“It was really cool to represent Canada, to really show what we’re about in Canada, but also to meet all these people from different countries and learn about their cultures, their histories, what they do at home, and kind of how we’re similar and different.”
Chen is hoping to continue her work on CAR T-cell therapy, perhaps with a mentor at the University of Alberta. She also plans to continue her work at university.
“I’m hoping to head off to university, hopefully get involved in some research — hopefully cancer research — very soon. That is actually what makes me so excited because, like I told you, there’s that patient-centred side, right? It’s really about knowing the patient, knowing their history, knowing the importance of their family members, etc., and being able to help them, offer them that hope. But there’s also a research side — actually developing the CAR T-cells, doing the tests, things like that.”
“I’m 17, so we’ll see,” she said with a laugh.
Chen has been working on this project for two years and stressed how thankful she is for all the support she’s received.
“My friends and family, my school, my school district, Youth Can Innovate, Youth Science Canada, and The Gwyn Morgan and Patricia Trottier Foundation, who sponsored me to go to Brussels.
“Youth Science in Canada is so amazing,” Chen said. “Even at the national fair, there were so many amazing projects that I think, if they’d gone to Brussels, they would have done amazing as well.
“For me and Arushi to go, it was really an honour and I had a great time representing Canada.”