Science fair search for a cure

Aisha Parven, a Grade 11 student whose cancer research project won a silver medal at the Canada-Wide Science Fair, stands with her chemistry teacher Dr. Gabriel Ayyavooo at Notre Dame High School on May 20. PHOTO: Andrew Hudson
Aisha Parven, a Grade 11 student whose cancer research project won a silver medal at the Canada-Wide Science Fair, stands with her chemistry teacher Dr. Gabriel Ayyavooo at Notre Dame High School on May 20.
PHOTO: Andrew Hudson

A local student has won a silver medal at the Canada-Wide Science Fair by delivering cancer-killing materials on nanoparticles of gold.

Sixteen year-old Aisha Parven, a Grade 11 student at Notre Dame High School, won the prize after months of work in a university lab, where she tested how the element Indium and an antibody called Panitumumab can be used to destroy a line of breast cancer cells.

Both are non-toxic, unlike the chemotherapy and radiation therapy that are conventionally used to fight cancer.

“The big challenge was the cell line,” said Parven, speaking shortly after the May 15 science fair. “The cells tend to stick to each other, so it’s really hard to kill them.”

That is one reason why Parven chose gold nanoparticles as a delivery vehicle — at less than a billionth of a metre in size, they can travel inside cancer cells, rather than just layer around them.

Doctors can also scan patients to see how the particles are moving through the body.

By starting with a dose of the antibody, and following with a dose of Indium, Parven’s experiment killed up to 65 per cent of the cancer cells in a week and a half.

“I think her project is beyond that of Grade 11s or 12s even,” said Notre Dame chemistry teacher Dr. Gabriel Ayyavoo. “It’s a big jump into university-calibre research.”

Indeed, the jump is so big that it started as a joke.

Parven said she enjoyed her first high-school science project, when she and a team tested the strength of various glues.

Parven started thinking ahead to what her next science project might be. That’s when her older sister Saba teased her, saying, “Why don’t you go cure cancer?”

“I said, ‘Okay,’” said Parven, smiling. “Might as well take it seriously.”

Parven watched a DVD series on cancer research, and used Google Scholar to dig up research papers. In Grade 10, she studied the same line of breast cancer cells she experimented on this year to see how quickly they grow when fed glucose and glycine.

For that project, Parven had to do her work at a lab in the Canadian Blood Services building, meaning she had to catch up on regular school work at home.

This year, she worked at a University of Toronto lab run by pharmacy professor Dr. Raymond Reilly, a well-known breast cancer researcher who mentored Parven along with two other scientists as she came in twice a week from January to April.

After winning gold at the Toronto Science Fair and moving on to nationals in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Parven said she met lots of students doing similar work.

“Every other science fair project was using nanotechnology for something,” she said, noting that working on such a small scale makes it easier to target things.

One of those projects was a similar cancer treatment study by Tasnia Nabil, a 14-year-old from Windsor, Ontario. In a technique Nabil calls ferromagnetic nano therapy, she destroyed heat-sensitive cancer cells by exciting magnetite nanoparticles with a magnetic field.

“It was really fascinating,” said Parven, who was amazed by all the university-level math Nabil had to do. Parven may try a similar magnetic-field experiment for her project next year.

Besides a silver medal and a $500 Manning Innovation award, Parven left the Canada-Wide Science Fair with scholarship offers at five Canadian universities.

Over the summer, Parven said she will think about what she might study after high school – biology or architecture?

“It’s hard because they’re completely different,” said Parven, laughing.


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