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Laval student helps design Parkinson's treatment

Thursday April 11, 2013

Janet Bagnall

Montreal Gazette - Eunice Linh You, a Grade 11 student at Laval Liberty High School, won third prize and $3,000 in a national science competition for her work in designing stem cell treatments for patients with Parkinson’s disease.

Just 17 years old, Linh You won her prize in what was called an “incredible” field of 208 young Canadian science students who all placed first in earlier regional competitions. First-place winner was Calgary student Arjun Nair, 16, for his work with an experimental cancer “photothermal therapy,” about injecting patients with gold nanoparticles that can be heated to kill cancer cells. In second place was 17-year-old Selin Jessa for her research into how genetic mutations help people with HIV naturally avoid symptoms associated with the virus.

“I was extremely happy,” Linh You said in an interview from Ottawa where the prizes were announced Tuesday afternoon. “I really didn’t expect it. There are so many amazing projects.”

Jon Fairest, president and CEO of Sanofi Canada, a sponsor of the Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada competition, said, “I think the bar is set higher every year. I think when you get down to a group like this, they’re all winners.” The competition, now in its 20th year, has attracted 4,500 students from across the country. “Their dedication is second to none,” said Fairest, “particularly given their young age. It’s quite reassuring for the next generation of innovation and research in Canada.”

Linh You, whose parents work in the clothing industry, praised Quebec’s system of science fairs and mentorship for helping her choose science and allowing her to achieve what she has so far. “I started being interested in science in Grade 7,” she said. “It was when I started doing research and when I was able to obtain all these hands-on experiences with actual research that is being done by professionals everywhere.”

Linh You started researching Parkinson’s, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system that affects more than 100,000 Canadians, when she looked last year into the effect of pesticide exposure. She switched to stem cell research after she was paired with a mentor, Liam Crapper, a doctoral candidate at McGill University whose field is stem cells.

“Basically, Parkinson’s disease is caused by the degeneration of a specific group of neurons,” said Linh You. “Patients exhibit motor deficits ranging from inability or slowness in initiating movement to difficulty in talking to actual abnormalities, etc. There are no cures for Parkinson’s right now.”

If scientists could generate a specific type of neuron from stem cells, they could transplant them into the brains of the patient, said Linh You, “which would alleviate or alleviate completely all their motor problems.”

Fetal stem cell transplants, the first type of transplant used, did not work on all patients, said Linh You, who said her work involved human pluripotent stem cells taken from skin cells. These are stem cells that can be transformed into the patient’s own personalized cell line, she said.

In no rush to bypass any stage of her education, Linh You said, “I really still enjoy the high-school experience.”