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Intel Fair Winners Could Cut Price of Cancer Treatment

Two Bay Area students won the Intel Science Fair with a project that could improve radiation therapy.

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The winners of the Intel Science and Engineering Fair could make cancer treatment attainable for poverty-stricken people.

A pair of seniors from Lafayette, Calif. developed a way to reduce the cost of fighting cancer to as little as 60 cents per treatment. Matthew Feddersen and Blake Marggraff, whose project is called "Treatment of Simulated Cancer Cells with Compton Scattering-Produced Secondary Radiation," won the $75,000 Gordon Moor Award for the best overall project at the fair.

Their method would position tin particles near cancer cells. Radiation would then be targeted toward the tin particles. The resulting "secondary radiation," the pair found, intensifies the radiation's effect, killing cancer cells more quickly than standard radiation.

The only similar research using secondary radiation the two had found involved using gold. Tin is much cheaper, and found throughout much of the world. Patients would need fewer doses of radiation at lower levels, so the treatment would be safer and less expensive.

"These are the same radiation treatments available all over the world; we're just making them more effective," says Marggraff, who will attend Washington University in St. Louis this fall. He plans to study biochemistry on a premed track. Fedderson will attend the University of Illinois—Urbana Champaign and will study computer engineering.

[See photos from the Intel Science and Engineering Fair.]

The treatment is not a cancer cure, exactly—but it could make treatments more available to people in poverty-stricken countries. "It's unique in that it's not the same level of advancement that many pharmaceutical companies are focusing on. It's not going to save lives when a person can afford treatment," he says. "But it's something that can be used globally—it could have a huge impact on global health."

Both are relative newcomers to the science fair world. Marggraff created a science fair project when he was just a first grader, and this was Feddersen's first.

The pair started the project in January—but their four months of research were anything but quick. They spent many days after school and on weekends conducting their research. And even though they've been recognized as some of the best young scientific minds in the country, Feddersen says they still have work to do.

"There's always something to improve, even in something like this," he says. The next step, Marggraff adds, is to find a university or research lab to run further tests.

Runner-up Taylor Wilson, a junior at Davidson Academy in Reno, Nev., created a device that would detect weapons-grade plutonium and highly enriched uranium, the two elements that can be used to create a nuclear weapon. His project, "Countering Nuclear Terrorism: Novel Active and Passive Techniques for Detecting Nuclear Threats," won him the $50,000 Young Scientist Award.

His invention would be used to scan cargo ship containers for weapons of mass destruction entering the country, and has already piqued the interest of officials at the Department of Homeland Security. The device detects the radioactive signatures given off by the two elements, alerting workers at a port. The 17-year-old hopes the device will be available at ports nationwide within the year.

"I want to get it deployed as soon as possible," he says. "You can't wait 20 years and hope someone doesn't try to bring in a nuclear weapon. Any minute now, someone could be bringing a nuclear weapon into, say, Los Angeles."

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