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The BioGENEius Challenge: One Young Man's Story that Could Save Your Life

I am continuously amazed when I hear about young scientists – high school students - who are making a difference in the future of medicine.  I recently talked with Riley Ennis, a freshman at Dartmouth College, who won the Virginia BioGENEius Challenge last year and went on to become a U.S. National BioGENEius finalist.  He started developing a new way to treat cancer while he was still in high school.  Read on to find out about this young man's journey and the role the Virginia BioGENEius Challenge has played in his life.

The Virginia BioGENEius Challenge is a "virtual science fair" competition that is happening this month.  It is an incredible opportunity for high schools students currently enrolled in biology or science-related courses across Virginia.  It is co-sponsored by the Virginia Biotechnology Association, Virginia Bioscience Foundation, and ATCC. The application deadline is April 15th.

I contacted Riley because I wanted to know more about his experience.  I was curious about how he become interested in biotechnology and how competing in the BioGENEius Challenge affected his college and career choices.  What he shared with me goes so much further.  Riley is not only an inspiration for young people to tackle hard problems and think out of the box, but he is also an example of a young scientist who is making a difference in cancer research and therapies that could change all of our lives.

Here is one young man’s story:

How did you become interested in Biotechnology in the first place?

“I actually was interested in marine biology as a kid.  I used to love paddling out on the surfboard to try and find dolphins and snorkeling after turtles on vacations.  As I grew older, my interest in marine life transformed into a passion for biomedical sciences.  I found it fascinating how some of our greatest medical innovations actually came from the ocean, and that is what pushed me towards biotechnology.”

What inspired you to pursue biotechnology research and to apply to the BioGENEius challenge?

“I was inspired by the challenge.  I wanted to change things that I was being told were not possible or not doable.  In the end I thought outside of the box and made it happen.  Ultimately the idea for my research came from a culmination of my life’s experiences that included two particular events – a NOVA research special on horseshoe crabs and how their immune system’s work and an article I read at a summer internship at UPenn on cancer immunology.  Being exposed to these two very different topics allowed me to bridge an idea that had never been thought of before: to generate a novel vaccine delivery system for cancer.”

What was your winning project?

“My research project was on a novel cancer vaccine technology that is a cost effective and patient specific therapy that teaches the cells of the immune system to recognize and destroy the cancer.  The irony is that over forty years ago President Nixon declared war on cancer, and still today chemotherapy and radiation remain the primary forms of treatment.  But maybe with cancer vaccines, the answer this whole time has been within us and part of our own immune systems!”

What are you doing now that is related to your original research?

“As a freshman at Dartmouth College, I invest a lot of time into Immudicon, which is the spin off biotechnology company from my research at BioGENEius.  After I had finished the research and development of the vaccine I came into contact with industry experts who helped me start the company, file the patent applications, and begin to focus on licensing the idea or intellectual property to larger biotechnology companies.  With the hope that one day the technology will make a difference."

What was it like going to the US National and International BioGENEius Challenge?

"Standing on stage in front of hundreds of our world's most successful biotechnology CEOs, hearing Tony Blair speak, and interacting with some of the most incredible industry leaders was an event I will never forget.  In addition, the students I met and the friendships I have made have helped me so much in many ways.  I even was co-inducted with one of my fellow BioGENEius challenge winners into the National Young Inventors Gallery this year!"

What would you like to tell other middle and high school students to inspire them to become involved in biotechnology and this competition?

"When you believe you can do something and you enable yourself to do so you can do anything you want to.  Everyday kids of all ages and all backgrounds are changing the world in one way or another.  Kids without degrees are making huge discoveries in science, which could one day have major implications.  I was told I could not make a difference, but through my experiences I learned that perseverance, tenacity, and always looking for the big picture will get you a long way.  Take every opportunity and explore all the incredible things in this world."

Finally I would like to share with you the most amazing moment in my entire journey.  The one event in this that changed my life was when I was asked to speak at my local chapter Relay for Life cancer fundraising event.  As I spoke about vaccines and nanotechnology, I quickly noticed that members in the audience began to cry.  The woman in the front dreamed the vaccine would work so she could beat her cancer and be a mother to her children.  The man in the back prayed the vaccine would work so he could walk his daughter down the aisle.  These are real people, and whether my vaccine is a potential new therapy or not, it will contribute to the field and hopefully one day help us to find a cure.  This was the moment that kept me late in the lab after school and pushed me through all of the difficulties surrounding the project.  And these are the moments that make biotechnology or just about any research project worth pursuing: the idea that one day you could actually save a life!"

If you are – or you know of a young person who is interested in making a difference in the biosciences or medical device industry, now is the time for you to apply to the Virginia BioGENEius Challenge.

For More information and an application

Watch the video to see and hear from the 2011 Virginia BioGENEius finalists:

Article by Debbie Mickle, Science Matters Project Manager

Listen to this report from WCVE Public Radio’s John Ogle: