Teens Discover Potentially Game-Changing Medical Breakthroughs

High school seniors won $100,000 scholarships for their research projects in the Siemens Competition.

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Why leave the scientific breakthroughs to research professors? The teen winner of the 2011 Siemens Competition in Math, Science, and Technology may have created a nanoparticle that could revolutionize cancer treatment.

The particle Angela Zhang, a senior at Monta Vista High School in Cupertino, Calif., created can target cancer stem cells, which are notoriously difficult to kill.

"Angela created a nanoparticle that is like a Swiss army knife of cancer treatment," Tejal Desai, a contest judge, said in a statement. "Her work is an important step in developing new approaches to the therapeutic targeting of tumors via nanotechnology."

Zhang, who won a $100,000 college scholarship for her work, tested her method on lab mice and lab-grown cancer cells. She says hopefully the method can one day be used on humans.

Ziyuan Liu and Cassee Cain, seniors at Oak Ridge High School in Tennessee, won the team prize for a program they created that uses the Xbox 360 Kinect camera to analyze a person's gait. Their program has possible applications in physical therapy and medicine.

Jeniffer Harper-Taylor, President of the Siemens Foundation, says the competition serves to highlight the important work teens like Liu, Cain, and Zhang are doing.

"Great opportunity for students to show on national platform the level of work that can be done by high school students," she says. "We see students who have done their work in world-class labs, and there's students who have worked in a basement without having a mentor. They all have a desire to work on something innovative."

For Zhang, it wasn't easy. She spent three years working on her project—four if you count the year she spent attending seminars and reading up on cancer before beginning her research. "I contacted a professor at [Stanford University] when I was 14 to see if I could work in their lab," she says. "He said 'Absolutely not, you're only 14.'"

She struck up a compromise to learn as much as she could about cancer, and started working in the lab a year later. And she didn't let her failures discourage her.

"There were a lot of times [the treatment] didn't work, but that was part of the excitement of the project—being able to design and implement more creative solutions," she says.

For their part, Liu and Cain's program can diagnose problems with a person's gait nearly as well as medical scanners that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Microsoft Kinect has an MSRP of about $100.

"Our program does the same kind of analysis as million-dollar gait labs," says Cain. "People in rural areas and third world countries don't have those resources. This is a portable and affordable way to get gait analysis out to more people in the world."

She says the analysis can be used to determine what types of prosthetics might be needed for amputees and can be used by physical therapists to determine appropriate exercises for people who have difficulty walking.

Harper-Taylor, of the Siemens Foundation, says she hopes these projects will inspire others.

"They can serve as great role models. Anyone who has an interest and desire to do something innovative can try this," she says.

For now, the three aren't sure where they'll go to college, but research is in their future. Says Zhang: "Honestly, I want to study everything in math and the sciences. I couldn't imagine limiting myself to either one."