Waterloo Biologist mentors local teen, the 2018 International BioGENEius Challenge winner

Friday, June 15, 2018

Professor Brian Dixon hosts Sajeev Kohli in his University of Waterloo lab, guiding him on experiments and helping to promote his work to the outside world.

Brian Dixon and Sajeev KohliLast week, Sajeev Kohli, a local Waterloo teen from Sir John A. MacDonald Secondary School, won the International BioGENEius Challenge, held in Boston, Massachusetts.

Kohli has rightly earned lots of media attention lately, but he also acknowledges the support he’s received from mentors and collaborators, such as Biology Professor Brian Dixon and Chemical Engineering Professor Pu Chen, both from the University of Waterloo. In fact, it was Dixon who encouraged Kohli to do the SANOFI BioGENEius competition.

“I’m really glad I did this,” says Kohli.

Kohli had already competed at the international science fair as part of Team Canada with his project, which improves the targeting ability of nanoparticles used in delivering cancer medication. Dixon knew the BioGENEius competition would be a better fit and much more geared toward recognizing the profound implications of Kohli’s research, which include reducing painful side-effects for millions of patients taking cancer therapeutics.

“The BioGENEius challenge, unlike science fairs, places great emphasis on biotechnological applications and thus I knew Sajeev’s project would be well accepted there,” says Dixon, who is also a member of the Waterloo Centre for Bioengineering and Biotechnology.

This is the first time in 14 years Canada has won the international BioGENEius Challenge. The biotechnology-focused science fair draws hundreds of entries annually from the best and brightest secondary students across Canada, US and Germany.

Kohli first heard about Dixon from his Grade 11 biology teacher Tara Hurley. He was already working with Pu Chen, a professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering as well as Toronto’s Sick Kids Hospital, but needed help with additional experiments on cancer cells in vitro to validate his approach.

Kohli’s research centres around nanoparticles tagged with antibodies that help to target specific cancer cells. Theoretically, it’s a great way to find and deliver medication into the cancer cell itself, but once the nanoparticles enter the blood stream, they get covered in a layer of random proteins.

“When a nanoparticle enters the blood, it’s covered in proteins. And these proteins cover 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,” says Kohli. 

Kohli’s idea is to design particles that get covered only by select proteins that still allow the nanoparticle to target cancer cells, which are also mutating.

“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,” says Dixon.

To complement his lab work, Kohli also developed a bioinformatics algorithm so that his method can eventually be used to treat a variety of cancers.

“What Sajeev’s done is develop an algorithm that helps you target or figure out what drugs are most likely to work...in advance,” says Dixon. “So it’s going to cut down that random searching for a technique, it’s a much more targeted approach.”

Dixon is proud of how far Kohli has come, but also reminds him that research is a long-term commitment. Kohli sounds undeterred.

“I love research. Over the past four years, working in a lab has been incredible,” he says. “Of course, there are hard days, but you stick it out because when you get good results the feeling itself is the reward.”