Age: 18Emerson, NJ
Project Title: PIF1 Gene Integration: A Novel Chemosensitizing Approach in Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer
For my project, I developed a gene-therapy treatment model for non-small cell lung cancer. More specifically, I designed a transportation plasmid that carries the code for the PIF1 protein and targets cancer due to certain proteins that are only expressed in cancer cells. Through my work, I have found that PIF1 has great potential in making cancer very sensitive to the standard drugs that we use today, which is crucial because this can allow us to reduce the dosages required to treat cancers. Even though these drugs are standard, they pose many dangerous effects at high dosages and can drastically reduce the quality of life for patients. For this reason, I found it necessary to adjust how we look at and tackle cancer today.
My name is Maximilian Zhang, and I am a graduate of the Bergen County Academies in Hackensack, NJ. I began high school focused on studying engineering, but over the past few years, I have developed a strong interest in biology and medical technology as well. This is ultimately what prompted me to begin my expedition into cancer research and to develop a gene-therapy treatment model for aggressive lung cancer lineages. Being named a Davidson Fellow has been an amazing experience and validates that my work holds merit and potential for bringing along real change in the healthcare industry - and that was the mission all along.
For my project, I developed a gene-therapy treatment model for non-small cell lung cancer. I was inspired to start this project after watching a video in biology class about the story of HeLa cells, the first cell line that could be grown in the lab. I realized that it came down to a handful of mutated proteins to which a cancer’s malignancy could be attributed to. Ever since, I have looked for ways to tackle cancer through this window. My project works by introducing a plasmid that prompts cancer cells specifically to overexpress a gene known as PIF1. Through my work I have demonstrated that PIF1 has the ability to sensitize cancer cells to the standard chemotherapeutics used in treatments today in two major pathways. First, PIF1 inhibits telomerase, the protein responsible for cancer’s ability to divide indefinitely. Secondly, PIF1 reads chemo-caused DNA damage, meaning that it can translate a little bit of chemotherapeutic action into a large death response in cancer cells. Overall, this project is significant because by reducing the dosage of chemotherapeutics, we also mitigate the dozens of destructive effects correlated with high dosage treatments.
I completed this project in my school laboratory at the Bergen County Academies as part of my school's research program. I would say that the biggest challenges that I faced and overcame through the course of this project were the limitations of facilitating high level biology experiments in school. Some research techniques such as using in vivo models were prohibited by school rules, but I believe working around such limitations made me a better and more creative person today. For example, to effectively test my plasmid without an in vivo model, I designed the next best thing, a microfluidic lung chamber that would mimic a small area of a human lung. My biggest support for this project came from my mentor, Mrs. Donna Leonardi. Prior to starting my project, I learned laboratory procedure, experimental design skills, and data analysis techniques from Mrs. Leonardi and my sophomore biology teachers. After the development of my project, I routinely explained my designs and hypotheses to my mentor who offered questions and assisted me in ordering the materials necessary to perform my experiments, through the school.
For those diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), an aggressive, rapidly dividing cancer, 5-year survival rates hover just below 14 percent. And that is because, despite a push towards targeted therapy and personalized medicine, the majority of patients are still treated with drugs that may cause more damage than good. Chemotherapeutics have long been considered the empirical standard for many cancers, NSCLC included, yet the drawbacks of this approach can have devastating implications. High dosage chemotherapeutics have long been associated with inducing cytotoxicity in normal cells, reducing quality of life, and promoting mutations and new cancers to form. I see my work improving the quality of life for others because of its innovative approach in tackling this dilemma.
I have been fortunate enough to have graduated from a public magnet school in New Jersey known as the Bergen County Academies. As a student in the Academy for Engineering and Design Technology I took classes in computer aided design, manufacturing, and electronics. I also branched my interests into biology where I took classes in immunology, developmental biology, and a research course. In the upcoming fall semester, I plan to attend the University of California, Berkeley where I will be studying Molecular Biology and Business. I hope that this leads me on a path to begin my career in medicine and biotechnology.
Throughout high school I have placed my efforts into a few areas outside of research. For one, I was the co-captain of my school’s robotics and engineering teams, where I led members, obtained mentors/sponsorships, and oversaw robot design and creation. I always found engineering fascinating, and I am glad that I had the chance to combine my interests in medicine and engineering throughout this project. Another large aspect of my life has been Boy Scouts. Over the last few years I have had the opportunity to lead my troop by organizing events and numerous community service initiatives. I have also had the chance to teach younger Scouts necessary outdoor skills such as first aid, knot-tying, and cooking, along with scouting principles, and this year I have earned the honor of Eagle Scout.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Hopefully running a biotechnology company.
If you could have dinner with the five most interesting people in the world, living or dead, who would they be?
Dave Chappelle, Kobe Bryant, George W. Bush, Albert Einstein, Alexander the Great.
In the News
EMERSON TEEN AWARDED $50,000 FOR DEVELOPING TECHNIQUE TO IMPROVE EFFECTIVENESS OF LUNG CANCER TREATMENTS
Maximilian Zhang to be Named a 2020 Davidson Fellow Scholarship Winner
Emerson, N.J. – The Davidson Fellows Scholarship Program has announced the 2020 scholarship winners. Among the honorees is 18-year-old Maximilian Zhang of Emerson. Zhang won a $50,000 scholarship for his project, PIF1 Gene Integration: A Novel Chemosensitizing Approach in Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer. He is one of only 20 students across the country to be recognized as a scholarship winner.
“Being named a Davidson Fellow has been an amazing experience and validates that my work holds merit and potential for bringing along real change in the healthcare industry,” said Zhang.
Zhang, inspired in his high school biology class, developed a gene-therapy treatment model for non-small cell lung cancer where he discovered that overexpressing the gene PIF1 has the ability to sensitize cancer cells to the standard chemotherapeutics used in treatments. This discovery is significant because reducing the dosage of chemotherapeutics will mitigate the dozens of destructive effects correlated with high-dosage cancer treatments.
Zhang will be attending the University of California, Berkeley in the fall where he plans to study molecular biology and business with the goal of a future career in medicine and biotechnology.
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The following disclosure is provided pursuant to Nevada Revised Statutes (NRS) 598.1305:The Davidson Institute for Talent Development is a Nevada non-profit corporation which is recognized by the Internal Revenue Service as a 501(c)3 tax-exempt private operating foundation. We are dedicated to supporting the intellectual and social development of profoundly gifted students age 18 and under through a variety of programs. Contributions are tax deductible.
Profoundly gifted students are those who score in the 99.9th percentile on IQ and achievement tests. Read more about this population in this article.