Waterloo teen takes cancer treatment tech to BioGENEius Challenge in Boston

Sajeev Kohli has been working long days and nights out of a lab at the University of Waterloo, to find a better and cheaper way of treating cancer — and other diseases.

Nanoparticles offer cheaper and better cancer drug delivery, says Sajeev Kohli

Teen researcher Sanjeev Kohli, 16, and one of his mentors professor Brian Dixon at his lab at the University of Waterloo. (Jackie Sharkey/CBC)

Sajeev Kohli doesn't like to boast that he's found a cure for cancer. The sixteen-year-old thinks too many people make that claim. 

But over the past year he's been working long days and nights out of a lab at the University of Waterloo to find a better and cheaper way of treating cancer and other diseases. 

"Basically my project focuses on developing a new method to build these nanoparticle-based drug carriers that can be used for the treatment of a wide range of diseases," Kohli said. 

Kohli won top prize in the Sanofi Biogenius Canada science fair in May. Next week, he represents Canada at the 2018 International BioGENEius Challenge in Boston — billed as "the largest biotechnology event in the world."

'Try to ease the pain'

Kohli's work is part of a school co-op term at Sir John A. Mcdonald Secondary school in Waterloo, but he said he was inspired his uncle's kidney cancer diagnosis last year.

"I spent a majority of my Grade 10 year going back and forth between here, in Waterloo, and in Washington. And I had to see him suffer," recalled Kohli.

"This was someone who had never even frowned in front of me before, who's now in so much agony and pain," he said.

"Fortunately he got the surgery and he's recovering now but I just wanted to see if there's anything I could do to try to ease the pain and suffering of others who faced similar situations."
Sajeev Kohli has been working long days and nights out of a lab at the University of Waterloo, to find a better and cheaper way of treating cancer — and other diseases. 6:32

A better way to target cancer cells

Kohli's work is making waves in the international science community, in part because of how it is able to target mutated cancer cells and not healthy ones, explained Brian Dixon, who runs one of the labs where Kohli does his research. 

"The problem is, because they're cells that are changed and are growing, it's very hard to target just those cells and not our own cells. And that's usually the problem with most cancers," said Dixon.

"The lab experiments he's doing, the bio-infomatics, is a way of targeting the cancer cells specifically so that we can actually deliver the drug  — or whatever we're doing  — in a very specific way."

Sticky ball pit explains tech

"When a nanoparticle enters the blood ... it's almost like jumping into a [sticky] ball pit."

"So if you were to jump into a sticky ball pit, and then jump out, you're obviously covered in balls, right? So when a nanoparticle enters the blood, it's covered in proteins. And these proteins stick to the surface of the nanoparticle  and basically mask it from the surrounding environment. Now, the nanoparticle has lost its targeting ability and is basically just floating around." 

"This is the main reason why with existing treatments even for cancer you have so many side effects."

"What I've done, is I've found a way to build these kinds of carriers where you can actually control the formation of this layer [of proteins] around the carrier to instead promote the specific targeting to where it needs to go."

'I'll work 20 years. I'll try to get it done'

Dixon said he expects Kohli's method can be adapted to a variety of different types of cancer and could bring down the cost of treatment.

"It takes a lot of work to figure out what's actually going to work with each specific cell. What Sajeev's done is develop an algorithm that helps you target or figure out what drugs are most likely to work ... in advance. So it's going to cut down that random searching for a technique, it's a much more targeted approach."

Kohli's determination is clear, said Dixon, and he'll need that kind of persistence if he hopes to get his research to market. 

"I don't want to get Sajeev down, but these things usually run into the 20-odd years," said Dixon. 

That didn't prediction doesn't seem to bother Kohli. 

"I love research. Over the past four years, working in a lab has been incredible. You're on the edge of knowledge. Of course, there are hard days, but you stick it out because when you get good results the feeling itself is the reward ... If 20 years is what it takes, I'll work 20 years. I'll try to get it done." 

About the Author

Jackie Sharkey

Associate Producer, CBC KW

Jackie Sharkey has worked all over the country with the CBC over the past decade, including Kelowna, Quebec City and Rankin Inlet, NU. She frequently reports on the arts and is particularly interested in stories where consumer and environmental issues intersect.

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