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Edmonton Student Wins European Science Fair With Patient-centred Project

“Having the win in Brussels showed me that the project is going in right direction. It was confirmation that it’s impactful and can help people.”

Already a national champion, Edmonton science whiz Elizabeth Chen continued her winning ways earlier this month, taking top prize at a prestigious European science fair.

A Grade 12 student at Old Scona School, Chen was among about 130 competitors at the 34th annual European Union Contest for Young Scientists (EUCYS) in Brussels, Belgium. She won first place for her project “Optimization of CAR-T Cell Therapy using RNA-Sequencing Analysis for Biomarker Identification.”

That’s a lot of syllables for “helps doctors predict how a patient will react to cancer treatment.” Chen focused on acute lymphoblastic leukemia, one of the most common cancers seen in children.

“Children are so small,” she said during an interview over her lunch hour Thursday. “They have to be in and out of hospitals with very intensive chemotherapy treatments. It’s very disheartening to see. It’s very traumatic for the family, the community and the child.”

Chemotherapy and radiation treatments affect the entire body. They can be effective but can also lead to relapse. Chen’s science looks to improve diagnostics associated with T-cell therapy, which engineers a patient’s own cells to fight cancer.

“So being specific, is why it’s so exciting to look into,” Chen said. “It’s patient-centred.

“Sometimes patients can respond quite strongly and it’s not good for their body, because there’s a lot of toxicity associated with the treatment sometimes. I identified genetic markers that can give a sense of how they’re going to respond.”

Chen took home $10,000 along with the title for her troubles on her first trip to the continent.

“I was really excited and nervous, mostly excited,” she said. “Each non-EU project can only win one of the top three prizes. I was really happy I could bring something home because there were a lot of people who supported me in this project.”

That includes her family and friends, school and school district, Youth Science Canada, and last but not least, the Gwyn Morgan and Patricia Trottier Foundation, which supported the travel of Chen and other Canadian entrants.

“The whole organization that held the fair there was really great, very supportive,” she said. “To talk to everyone, have those experiences, meet youth from literally every part of Europe, seeing all the ideas, was really cool.

“There was a team with spiderwebs, another had something to do with a rocket. I was able to make a lot of connections. I’m thinking I’ll see a lot of them in the future, since we’re all interested in science. That was probably the highlight, other than the award.”

Chen, who would like to work in oncology or immunology, was also named Best Project Award winner in the discovery category during the Canada-wide Science Fair held in Edmonton in May. She hopes to speak to researchers in the field to see how her work can move forward.

“I want to gather more data,” she said. “One of the challenges was a limited data set at the outset.”

Chen isn’t sure where she wants to continue her studies after high school. She knows she’ll prefer schools that support undergraduate research.

But not before competing in the International Science Engagement Challenge, a sort of World Series of science fairs.

“Having the win in Brussels showed me that the project is going in the right direction,” she said. “It was confirmation that it’s impactful and can help people.”

Source: Edmonton Journal