High-school students are making strides in cancer research: ‘Gives me hope’

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The future of cancer research is in good hands.

Six high-school students in the U.S. are dedicated to making progress toward improving the diagnostics and treatment of the disease.

The students were finalists in this year’s Regeneron Science Talent Search, which is the country’s oldest and most prestigious science and mathematics competition hosted by the Society for Science in Washington, D.C.

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“We are thrilled to honor these bright minds dedicated to making strides in cancer research,” said Maya Ajmera, president and CEO of the Society for Science, a partner with Regeneron in the Science Talent Search.

“These high-school students are not only advancing our understanding of the way cancer presents in the human body, but are paving the way for potential future therapies and helping unlock new possibilities in the fight against this formidable disease.”

Four of the six student finalists who specialized in cancer research are shown here. Left, Sophie Chen; center (inset), Ekansh Mittal; top right, William Gao; and bottom right, Christopher Zorn. (Society for Science/Chris Ayers Photography)

Fox News Digital spoke with the teen finalists about their accomplishments and future goals for cancer research.

Christopher Zorn of Irvington, New York

Christopher Zorn, 17, is a senior at Irvington High School in New York.

He came in sixth place in the competition, winning $80,000 for his study of the role certain genes play in lung cancer growth.

“Cancer research allows me to explore my academic interests in genetics and molecular biology while granting a rare opportunity for a high school student to make a valuable humanitarian impact,” he told Fox News Digital.

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Being named a finalist in the competition was an “honor,” he said.

With the rise of personalized medicine, Zorn said one of the most exciting advancements has been the development of new technologies for discovering and testing new medicines.

“Researchers have gone from testing drugs one by one to being able to computationally test over four billion drug candidates in a day.”

Looking ahead, Zorn plans to pursue a career involving molecular biology and genetics, potentially in health, biotech entrepreneurship or government.

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“The direction cancer research is going in gives me hope,” he told Fox News Digital. 

“The rate at which biotechnologies are improving speaks to the incredible work done by tens of thousands of scientists behind the scenes, constantly implementing new and better approaches to cancer treatment.”

“The direction cancer research is going in gives me hope.”

To other aspiring researchers, Zorn’s best advice is to explore as much as possible.

“Explore what subjects interest you, what problems remain to be solved and how you can help make a difference,” he said.

William Gao of Ellicott City, Maryland

A senior at Centennial High School in Ellicott City, Maryland, 18-year-old William Gao first became interested in cancer after three of his grandparents lost their lives to the disease — “largely a result of inadequate health care infrastructure in under-resourced regions,” he told Fox News Digital.

“Hearing their story brought me to care about broader health inequities that persist around the globe today, which became the catalyst for my research,” he said.

For the competition, Gao developed a diagnostic support and image analysis tool built with artificial intelligence, which gathers pathology data from many medical centers to speed up the identification of metastatic breast cancer.

“AI is transforming health care, just as it is in so many other fields,” Gao told Fox News Digital. 

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“It’s incredibly exciting to explore its possibilities to assist doctors and help alleviate burdens on existing hospitals.”

In college, Gao hopes to further explore the intersection between AI and medicine

“My goal is to develop new technologies that can be applied to bridge real-world gaps,” he said.

“The best way to learn is by getting your feet wet and getting into research as soon as possible.”

“Besides a cure for cancer, AI and other advancements are finding incredible ways to improve facets of diagnosis and treatment therapies.”

To other young people interested in making a difference in the field, Gao urges them to start early.

“Don’t wait to get started,” he advised. “Sometimes, the best way to learn is by getting your feet wet and getting into research as soon as possible.”

Sophie Gao of New York City

Sophie Gao, 17, a high-school senior at Hunter College High School in New York City, snagged a finalist spot with her research into fighting a treatment-resistant mutation found in some of the world’s deadliest cancers.

Gao has been “fascinated” with biology and cellular diseases since her first year of high school, she said.

“When it came time for me to propose my own research topic, I knew I wanted to address cancer because it’s so prevalent,” she told Fox News Digital. 

“Looking at how we ‘drug the undruggable’ was really fascinating to me — that idea of accomplishing what was once thought to be impossible.”

Gao said she is excited about the “wealth of resources” available in the field of cancer research.

“We can address cancer from so many perspectives … and in different ways,” she said. “Now more than ever, the study of cancer is incredibly collaborative, and that’s allowed us to paint a more holistic, expansive picture of the disease as a whole.”

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After high school, Gao hopes to study science history in college before pursuing a career in medicine and science journalism. 

“I want to root whatever research I do in the future in the real people it’s meant to help,” she said. “It’s my hope that I’ll be able to continue this work in college as well.”

“Science is about pushing really, really hard against the boundaries of human knowledge, in hopes of making a tiny dent.”

While Gao isn’t sure whether there will ever be a “blanket cure” for cancer, she noted that there are many ways to prevent, manage and treat the disease.

“Even though cancer is so variable, I think we are able to meet each of those diverse challenges innovatively, and that the scope of that innovation is constantly expanding — which gives me a lot of hope,” she said.

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To other aspiring researchers, Gao’s advice is to “focus on the day-to-day.”

“A professor once told me that science is about pushing really, really hard against the boundaries of human knowledge, in hopes of making a tiny dent,” she said.

“Don’t go into it thinking you’ll change the face of the world — it’s the combination of hundreds and thousands of scientists working together that results in substantial discovery.”

Ekansh Mittal of Portland, Oregon

A senior at Westview High School in Portland, Oregon, Ekansh Mittal, 17, identified genes responsible for drug resistance in breast cancer chemotherapy treatments. 

His research could potentially lead to more effective breast cancer treatments by addressing drug resistance, according to Regeneron.

Mittal first became interested in cancer research when a close relative developed osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer, and died within two months of her diagnosis. 

“Her sudden death was shocking to our family and inspired me to get into cancer research for the early detection of cancer,” he told Fox News Digital.

Mittal is excited about advancements in precision medicine and the use of AI in cancer research and health care overall, he said — “particularly the use of machine learning approaches to mine large datasets, identify tailored treatments for each patient, and even predict the response to those treatments.”

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After graduation, Mittal plans to pursue his PhD in computational biology and to work as a researcher and entrepreneur. 

“One day, I hope to find cures for devastating diseases and bring them to people worldwide,” he said.

“I expect that, with the help of AI, we will see more progress in cancer research and health care in general in the next 10 years. We are at the cusp of some really great breakthrough discoveries.”

“One day, I hope to find cures for devastating diseases and bring them to people worldwide.”

Mittal’s advice to other student researchers? “Don’t be afraid to ask for help.” 

He said, “For this current research project, I contacted multiple faculty members and senior researchers and then finally connected with incredibly supportive mentors. I would not have been able to do it without them.”

Thomas Yu-Tong Cong of Ossining, New York 

Thomas Yu-Tong Cong, 17, a senior at Ossining High School in New York, investigated the rapid growth of certain cancers and whether information-controlling metabolism is primarily driven by genetics. 

In his research, Cong found that immune cancers have significant differences in metabolism and gene expression.

Based on his research, Cong landed in second place in the competition and won $175,000.

“I am interested in cancer research because of how quickly it adapts to stay ahead of us,” he told Fox News Digital.

“We need to make sure that we are not shooting behind the target, so it is both challenging and impactful to study cancer.”

Cong is hopeful that as cancer researchers continue to gather data, more trends will emerge. 

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“Machine learning will help discern these trends, but at the end of the day, as young researchers get involved with research, they will be able to find better treatments,” he predicted.

“I think cancer research is at a bright spot now, and advancements in computer science and biology show promise for helping to find more and more cures for different types of cancer.”

After high school, Cong aims to explore more fields of study beyond cancer research, including academia and higher education.

“Cancer research is at a bright spot now.”

Cong’s primary advice to youth researchers is to “understand that your current knowledge (or lack thereof) is fine to start with.”

“You do not need to know every biological intricacy — especially those not relevant to your field — but understanding general biology is still important.”

Sophie Chen of Shreveport, Louisiana

A senior at Caddo Parish Magnet High School in Shreveport, Louisiana, 17-year-old Sophie Chen created a machine learning model that she hopes will improve the identification of benign versus cancerous tissues during surgery. 

Her findings could potentially reduce the risk of recurrence and metastasis of squamous cell carcinomas, according to Regeneron.

Chen’s interest in cancer research is lifelong — as the daughter of a pathologist, she was exposed firsthand to its complexities and realities. 

“Witnessing the intricate process of diagnosis sparked my interest in studying cancer at a deeper level, and ultimately led me to pursue ways to apply AI to automating these crucial cancer diagnoses,” she told Fox News Digital.

“I strive to harness the power of AI to drive transformative change.”

What excites Chen most is the rapid evolution of cancer treatments to improve patient outcomes and minimize side effects. 

“Additionally, the integration of technologies like AI and data analysis holds promise in helping us understand the complexities of cancer biology on a scale never before possible,” she said.

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In the future, Chen hopes to “create change through action,” by serving as a supportive role model or starting her own biotech company to develop cutting-edge technologies. 

“I want to work alongside others in producing applications like drug discovery algorithms or AI circuit-based therapeutics,” she said.

“Never underestimate the impact your dedication and hard work can have on improving the well-being of others.”

“I strive to harness the power of AI to drive transformative change.”

To other young researchers, Chen says it’s never too early to start.

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She added, “Don’t be afraid to take advantage of educational resources and opportunities available, and never underestimate the impact your dedication and hard work can have on improving the well-being of others.”

Anyone can learn more about the Regeneron Science Talent Search at www.societyforscience.org.

For more Health articles, visit www.foxnews.com/health.

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