Cell study wins top science fair prize for local student

April 21, 2006

By Nevil Hunt
The Kanata Kourier-Standard

Science fairs may conjure up images of mold growing in Petri dishes or bridges built out of Popsicle sticks, but for one Kanata high school student, the recent Ottawa Regional Science Fair was an opportunity to break new ground in the study of HIV, the disease that causes AIDS.

James MacLeod is a Grade 11 student at All Saints Catholic High School.
“I like to take on challenges,” the 16-year-old said.

James’ work certainly caught the eye of the judges, claiming first place in the Senior Biotechnology Division, as well as four other awards, including the University of Ottawa Entrance Scholarship Award, which came with a $1,000 scholarship if James decides to attend the university in two year’s time.

“I’d like to apply to Queen’s, but I’ll look at Ottawa,” he said. “I probably should start looking.”
For now, James is a little tied up with other things. His science fair entry required him to spend time in the Ottawa Health Research Institute’s labs with his mentor, Dr. Angela Crawley, and his work there continues.

The institute is an affiliate of the University of Ottawa and the research arm of the Ottawa Hospital. More than 1,200 scientists, clinical investigators, trainees and staff focus on cancer therapeutics, clinical epidemiology, hormones, growth and development, molecular medicine, neuroscience, and vision.

James said HIV was discussed in his Grade 10 health class, but his project went much deeper into the subject, right down to the cellular level.

HIV kills off good cells, and James’ lab work looked at the body’s reaction. As the good cells are killed off, the body sends out a message to create a material called Interleukin 7, which should help the body to recover. While the amount of Interleukin 7 – also known and IL7 – does increase in affected individuals, James found that it also becomes less effective.

“The surface expression of IL7 changes and can’t do the job,” he said. “The data suggests there’s a relationship, and I’m collecting more data.”

Because the human immune system is so complex – one change can trigger unexpected changes elsewhere – James said it’s too early to draw a conclusion about IL7 and how learning more about it could help people with HIV.

“Other immune responses may pick up in its place,” he said. “We’d have to look further to see if there are potential therapeutic uses (for the discovery).”

Crawley, who described the IL7 response “a real hijack of the immune system,” said she has worked with students before, but they’re usually undergrads, and none have been as young as James. She said she identified the work that needed to be done to study IL7, and James’ “inquisitive mind” took it from there.

“He had a learning curve because they don’t teach immunology (in high school),” Crawley said. “James has definitely learned a lot. He’s motivated, and you can tell he’s been thinking about it when he comes in (to the lab).”


James worked with advanced equipment such as gene quantification machines to carry out his research, all of which was likely a little more complex than he makes out.
“It’s like following a cake recipe,” he said. “You add materials and washes.”

He said that even with his science fair exhibit complete, he anticipates working with Crawley for a few more weeks. After that, James said the next step is up to his mentor.

“A grant could continue to look at this further,” he said. “Angela collects most of the data for her records, and if she wants to go that way, that’s up to her.”

If the work does continue, James said he’d like to be there to see the results. While it’s too soon to make any definitive conclusions, he said he has a hunch about where the study could lead.

“My gut feeling is it’s part of a bigger picture,” he said. “It could help us to understand how the immune system works, and that could mean better success with HIV or other immune system diseases.”

Chad Morreau, the science department head at All Saints, said, “biology is really (James’) cup of tea.”

“Curriculum-wise, I don’t think we even get into the immune system,” Morreau said. “We talk about viruses, but obviously not in this depth. This is truly something fantastic.”

James said he entered the Ottawa Regional Science Fair because his previous school, Venta Preparatory, regularly made the fair a part of the students’ science experience. His entry this year was the first for All Saints.

“James has this ability above and beyond anything we can do at this school,” Morreau said. “It’s phenomenal what he did, and this could potentially go international depending on how well he does at the nationals.”

Before any offshore science fairs are part of the mix, James will enter his work in a biotechnology challenge early next month at the Canada Science and Technology Museum, and then plans to attend the Canada-Wide Science Fair in Saguenay, Que., in mid-May.
Crawley said work on IL7 will continue at her research institute, as well as in labs around the world, where scientists are trying to figure out why Interleukin 7 acts as it does.

“It’s quite a race to see how this receptor is regulated,” she said.

Reproduced with permission from The Kanata Kourier-Standard