This high school student designed a process to create 3D tumours

Jody Mou volunteered on a biochemical engineering project in a University of Toronto lab. The result netted the high school the top honour in a regional biotech science fair.

Jody Mou's volunteer work in a university lab recognized with science fair award

University of Toronto Schools high school student Jody Mou with the device she designed to print 3D tumour models. (Tyler Irving)

When Jody Mou made a cold call to try to snag a spot volunteering at Toronto biochemical engineering lab, she never imagined her project would net her a chance to compete for the top spot in a Canada-wide competition.

After all, the 17-year-old high school student at the University of Toronto Schools never really had a love for biology until a few years ago.

"I was very, very sure I wanted to be an architect in grade 10 until I discovered biology," Mou told CBC Toronto. "It's never too late," she thought, however.

Now, less than a year after she first picked up the phone, Mou has won a regional biotech science fair for her work the lab and later this week, will head to the Sanofi Biogenius Canada finals in Ottawa.

'Nothing to lose'

So what was her project?

It may seem counter-intuitive but University of Toronto professor Alison McGuigan said she assigned Mou a task that was "the highest-risk."

McGuigan heard the high school student liked making things, so she came up with what she thought would be the perfect project for her new volunteer and matched her own philosophy for working with high school and university students that there was "nothing to lose."

Example of computer code for Mou's project. (University of Toronto)

She decided to ask the high school student to think "creatively" to make a three-dimensional model of a tumour with multiple cells evenly distributed.

The challenge was making sure they didn't dry out in the millimetre-wide strips after it was made with a 3D bioprinter.

Typically in a lab, scientists use a two-dimensional petri dish allowing cells to grow on two axes, sideways and not upwards, McGuigan said. Whereas rolling strips of cells allows them to grow in all directions, with more oxygen feeding them.

PhD candidate Darren Rodenhizer had been making those rolled types of tumour models with a single cell type by hand since 2015. The process was clunky to replicate and ineffective.

"The problem is that they're manually-made, so there's some inconsistency and we need high throughput to be able to test drugs," Rodenhizer said.

An 'out-there' project

The goal for Mou's team was develop engineered tumours that better replicate the environment of real tumours, said McGuigan. 

It was a project Mou said was "out-there." But she knew a thing or two about 3D printing, having become familiar with the process during a short stint working with a private company.

Choose something, do it well. But at the same time if you don't like it don't be scared to try something new.- Jody Mou, high school student

The process of using a 3D printer to make human cells - in particular for medical treatment testing - isn't new.

But while it took a couple of prototypes, Mou managed to come up with a new manufacturing process by reprogramming the bio printer with unique computer code and designing a new petri dish.

Mou didn't need to understand healthcare or a tumour to create a model of one with a 3D printer, said the head of the lab.

"Jody's manufacturing method could be used to create other 3D cell structures for regenerative medicine studies as the technique is not limited to just assembly of tumours," McGuigan said, adding the process  "means we really are on our way to mass-produce these systems so that we can really begin our drug screening efforts."

'Don't be scared to try something new'

One of the most rewarding aspects of the projects like this one, she added, is that it allows younger students to get involved with research, "rather than waiting for, say, third year or fourth year university to get started."

Humidification chamber used for 3D tumour models (University of Toronto)

Mou said she'll attend Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore to study biomedical engineering in September on a full scholarship.

And she has advice for peers trying to find what they love.

"Choose something, do it well. But at the same time if you don't like it don't be scared to try something new."


Stephanie Matteis is a senior reporter with CBC News, filing stories for television, radio & online. She's a pathological truthteller and storytelling junkie whose work appears on CBC Toronto, The National and Marketplace. Contact Stephanie: and @CBCsteph on Twitter.