Creating new insight into HIV-AIDS virus wins Canada's top student biotech prize for grade 11 Ottawa-area scientist, 16

May 11, 2006

Research by a 16-year-old Ottawa-area student that contributes new insights into the workings of the HIV-AIDS virus has earned top prize in the 2006 National sanofi-aventis biotech challenge, announced today in a ceremony at the National Research Council.

Grade 11 student James McLeod bested 12 fellow regional finalists from across Canada with a study into how the HIV/AIDS virus attacks specific cells in the body's immune system.

In addition to James McLeod of Kanata (1st prize, $5,000), the top prizes went to David Wang of London (2nd place, $4,000), Kartik Madiraju of Montreal (3rd place, $3,000) Philip Edgcumbe and Maxim Winther of Vancouver (4th place, $2,000) and Emily Cooley of Calgary (5th place, $1,000).

London's David Wang and Marzieh Ghiasi of Halifax tied for a special prize recognizing research with the greatest commercial potential. David genetically engineered tobacco plants to produce human interleukin 13, an anti-inflammatory protein with the potential to prevent or treat juvenile diabetes. Marzieh's research revealed how certain bacteria could be used to remove arsenic from drinking water. Both won a special $1,000 honorarium.

McLeod won the $5,000 top Canadian prize after a cross-country series of student presentations via videoconference yesterday to a panel of seven distinguished scientists at the National Research Council in Ottawa.

Understanding how the HIV-AIDS virus attacks the body's immune system

Necessity may be the mother of invention but curiosity is surely a close relative. It was last year in a Grade 10 health class discussion about the HIV-AIDS virus that curiosity got the better of James McLeod.

"Our teacher was explaining how the virus attacks specific cells in the body's immune system," James, 16, recalls. "I remember thinking about that process and wondering why it happens. My teacher loaned me some university textbooks and it all just developed from there."

Now in Grade 11 at All Saints High School, Kanata, and mentored by Dr. Angela Crawley and Jonathan Angel of the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, James focused his research on T-cells, important components of a healthy immune system. He wanted to know if there was a genetic explanation for the rapid death of T-cells, and the associated compromised state of the immune system, which is a hallmark of advanced stages of HIV-AIDS infection.

By examining RNA transcripts of particular T-cells, James found that a protein molecule called CD127 was preventing the delivery of a "survival signal" by a hormone called interleukin-7, which is needed for the development, survival and proliferation of T-cells.

"Now that we have a detailed picture of what is happening to the T-cells, we can look at therapies designed to prevent it," he said. The success of the project has pushed biotechnology up a few spots on James' list of possible career choices, but he's in no hurry to decide. "I've got another year of high school and a lot of things I'm interested in," he says.

Some of the brightest young scientists in Canada

In remarks at the ceremony, NRC Vice-President Dr. Roman Szumski, who served as one of the judges, said finalists in this competition "represent some of the brightest young scientists in Canada and I congratulate them all on their outstanding achievements. The NRC is proud to be part of this program and we look forward to future competitions."

He thanked the competition sponsor and Sanofi Pasteur Limited President Mark Lievonen for helping foster an appreciation of science education.

The teams and individuals representing their cities and regions in the 2006 national competition, from east to west:

Nashila Addetia, Holy Heart of Mary High School, St. John's: How anti-oxidants reduce post-stroke brain damage, promote recovery.

Whitney Kelly-Clark, Charlottetown Rural High School: Using horse tears as a new way to diagnose equine eye disease.

Marzieh Ghiasi, Queen Elizabeth High School, Halifax: Using bacteria to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Emma Strople and Kayla Kavanagh, Fredericton High School: Helping plants' natural defence system ward off viruses.

Kartik Madiraju, Centennial Regional High School: Finding a new electricity source in bacteria.

James MacLeod, All Saints High School, Kanata, Ontario: Understanding how the HIV-AIDS virus attacks the body's immune system.

Elena Kwan, Northern Secondary School: Stalking the evolution of corn.

David Wang, A.B. Lucas Secondary School: Using engineered tobacco plants to help treat diabetes.

George Guojin Deng, Kelvin High School: Improving classification of breast cancer tumors.

Howard Meng and Bobby Xiao, Walter Murray Collegiate: How soy can help fight cancer.

Priyanka Kedarisetti and Ankita Gupta, Harry Ainlay Composite High School: New computer models that could help hunt for cancer cure.

Emily Cooley, Queen Elizabeth Junior/Senior High School: Improving osteoporosis and bone replacement therapies.

Philip Edgcumbe and Maxim Winther, Kitsilano Secondary School: Revealing how Vitamin C protects brain tissue.

The sanofi-aventis biotech challenge is a high-level national competition that introduces students to the real world of biotechnology by carrying out research projects of their own design.

Each of the student teams work with a mentor in their community who provides expert advice and access to equipment and supplies. Many students who compete go on to pursue careers in biotechnology, healthcare, agriculture, and the environment.

Senior officials from the federal public service and the private sector served as judges.

- Dr. Alan Bernstein (Chair of the judging panel), President, Canadian Institute of Health Research
- Dr. Luis Barreto, Vice President Public Affairs, Sanofi Pasteur Limited
- Dr. Roman Szumski, Vice President, National Research Council
- Mr. Dupuis Angers, Chair, Biotechnology Human Resource Council
- Dr. Alec MacKenzie, Director of Research, Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario
- Dr. Elwyn Griffiths, Associate Director-General, Biologics and Genetic Therapies Directorate, Health Canada
- Dr. Janet King, Director General, Life Sciences Branch, Industry Canada

Speaking on behalf of the judges, Sanofi Pasteur Limited Vice-President Luis Barreto said: "The competition has presented an increasing challenge in last five years; the quality of science never stops surprising the judges. It is gratifying, however, to see that the future of biotechnology in Canada is in good hands."


National sponsors of the competition:
- Sanofi pasteur
- Pasteur Foundation
- Human Resources and Skills Development Canada
- National Research Council of Canada
- Genome Canada
- Canadian Institutes of Health Research
- Biotechnology Human Resource Council and
- the Canada Foundation for Innovation

Each regional competition also includes cash prizes. They are supported by local companies, educational institutions, industry organizations and government agencies. More than 100 organizations are partnered in this educational outreach initiative.

The competition mirrors the real world of scientific research by:
- Requiring students to submit research proposals for evaluation by a scientific evaluation committee;
- Providing up to $200 in advance funding to approved student projects;
- Assigning mentors to each team to provide expert advice and access to equipment and supplies; and
- Having each student project judged by fellow students (peer review) and by judges representing government, business, academia and the education community.

Winning student teams share their cash prize with their school. In some cities, winning students also receive university scholarships or summer jobs.

Many of the events also include lectures by some of local community's leading biotechnology researchers, science workshops for students and teachers, and exhibits on biotechnology.

For further information: Terry Collins, (416) 538-8712, (416) 878-8712,