University researchers and biotech firms worldwide are racing to study a powerful new gene-editing technique that holds the promise to treat hereditary diseases.
Along with them is Michael Zhang, a senior at Conestoga High School.
The 18-year-old from Berwyn just won a $75,000 prize for his work in the field. He was one of nine high school students recognized Tuesday night in Washington in the national Intel Science Talent Search.
Asked if he had plans for his prize money, Zhang said it would go toward his tuition at Harvard University.
"All of this wouldn't have been possible without the support of my parents," he said. "The least I could do would be to help them pay for college."
He conducted his prizewinning research last summer in the Harvard lab of prominent geneticist George Church, who pronounced him a "remarkable high school student."
Church praised Zhang's smarts in developing a better way of getting the gene-editing tool inside cells, but added that the young man stands out in another way that bodes well for his career. He does not hesitate to ask for what he wants.
"He's not aggressive or arrogant, but he is not shy, either," said Church, a professor at Harvard Medical School. "He would ask for time to meet with me, for example. A lot of people just assume I'm so busy that I don't have time."
Zhang's project involved the use of CRISPR, which enables scientists to perform very precise tweaks in the genes of a living cell.
The process relies on two key elements: a snippet of genetic material called guide RNA, which can be tailored to locate specific segments of DNA almost like the search tool in word-processing software, and an enzyme that then can be used to edit the DNA in question.
Traditionally, researchers have used these tools by injecting the genetic recipe to make them inside cells. Zhang worked on a more direct approach: treating cells with virus-like particles that were preloaded with the guide RNA and the enzyme.
Researchers are excited about CRISPR for many reasons, among them the hope of repairing genetic mutations to treat disease. Zhang said he was drawn to medicine in part because three grandparents died of cancer.
Church said many teens who work as interns in his lab are the children of scientists. Not so Zhang. His mother is an actuary and his father works in life insurance.
"He came out of nowhere, literally," Church said.
In the Intel competition, three prizes were awarded in each of three categories: basic research, global good, and innovation. Zhang's project took second place in the global good category.
First-place winners in each category took home $150,000. Third-place winners received $35,000.
Zhang's academic prowess goes beyond science and math. He earned a perfect 2400 on the SAT, which includes sections on reading and writing. He also took nine Advanced Placement exams, including three in the humanities, and notched a top score of 5 on each.
Outside the classroom, Zhang is on the varsity tennis team, serves as head designer for the school newspaper, and plays violin in the school orchestra.
Scott Best, who taught him AP chemistry last year, said he was impressed by Zhang's inquisitive nature.
"Many students want to simply memorize material, whereas he wants to understand it," Best said. "He never stops asking why something occurs. He wants to know the nuts and bolts behind things."
The Philadelphia area regularly produces top finishers in the Intel competition, now 75 years old. In 2015, Shashwat Kishore of Unionville High School won a third-place award for his work in an abstract branch of math called representation theory.
The winners this year were selected from a group of 40 finalists out of 1,750 high school seniors nationwide. Eight past finalists and semifinalists have gone on to win Nobel Prizes.