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Canadian kid uses supercomputing to cure cystic fibrosis

16-year-old cops prize for developing drug cocktail

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A Canadian teenager has scooped a CAN$5,000 prize and deserved glory after successfully wielding the power of a scientific supercomputing network to develop a mix of drugs which could be used to fight cystic fibrosis.

Marshall Zhang, a Grade 11 student at Bayview Secondary School in Richmond Hill near Toronto, used Canada's collaborative SCINET super-net to model the effects of different compounds on the mutant proteins responsible for cystic fibrosis. The debilitating disease causes the natural protective mucus lining sufferers' lungs to become thick and sticky, forming an inviting environment for potentially fatal infections.

"Marshall's findings show that computational methods can drive the discovery of compounds that may offer effective treatment for cystic fibrosis," comments Dr Christine Bear of Canada's Hospital for Sick Children. Zhang carried out his groundbreaking work in Bear's lab.

Apparently the young scientist suspected that combining two drugs could work more effectively than using one alone. He first modelled the effects of his plan in silico, then proved it using living cells in culture.

"The cells treated with the two drugs were functioning as if they were the cells of healthy individuals," says Zhang. "The thrill of knowing that I was on the forefront of current knowledge was absolutely the best thing about my experience ... getting a taste of real research has definitely driven me towards pursuing science in the future."

The new drug treatment impressed the judges in the 2011 Sanofi-Aventis BioTalent Challenge, leading them to award Zhang first prize on Monday. it should be borne in mind that his new treatment, should it pass through development and testing successfully, would take years to become available.

Other winners in the compo included a trio of youths who developed a way of making vegetarian sorbet. There's more for those interested here. ®

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