“Over the Moon”- A Q&A with the 2018 BioGENEius Winner

“Over the Moon”- A Q&A with the 2018 BioGENEius Winner

Every year, high school students from around the world compete in BioGENEius Challenges to be recognized for outstanding research in biotechnology. Last year, Sajeev Kohli, a 16-year-old from Waterloo, Ontario, won the BioGENEius award at the BIO International Conference. Kohli was interviewed on the Johnson & Johnson Innovation Podcast show.

Below is a lightly edited version of our conversation with Kohli last year. You can listen to the full podcast here and watch a conversation with Sanjeev Kohli and Seema Kumar here.

Caroline Baratz
Welcome back to the Johnson and Johnson Innovation Podcast. I'm Caroline Baratz, recording here at BIO 2018, one of the largest biotechnology conferences in the world. There's 16,000 attendees from 74 countries. We have the pleasure today of talking with Sajeev Kohli from Waterloo, Ontario, who is the high school winner of the BioGENEius Award. Without further ado, here's Sajeev.
Sajeev Kohli
My name is Sajeev Kohli. I'm 16 years old from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.
Caroline
All right. Well, welcome Sajeev. Sixteen-years-old and you just won one of the most prestigious awards in biotechnology. How does it feel?
Sajeev
I feel over the moon honestly. I'm still shaking. It was really unexpected, but I'm really overjoyed.
Caroline
How did you celebrate when you found out?
Sajeev
Well, I told my grandma, and then we both started jumping up and down, and taking pictures together, and I had a really big chocolate chip cookie.
Caroline
How did you get here? What's been your journey to BIO in Boston?
Sajeev
In Canada, we actually have something called the Sanofi Biogenius Canada, and that's very similar to the BioGENEius Challenge over here. One of my mentors, Dr. Brian Dixon, at the University at Waterloo, actually pointed me to the regional Sanofi Biogenius competition, and so I participated there in Southwestern Ontario. I won first place, and so I was given the opportunity to go to Toronto to participate in the national Sanofi Biogenius Competition, where I had the opportunity to win first place again. That's what led to me coming here for the International BioGENEius Competition.
Caroline
For those of who don't know, the BioGENEius award is a challenge series that's sponsored by Johnson & Johnson Innovation. It offers high school students the opportunity to compete and be recognized for outstanding research in biotechnology. There's three different challenges within that big challenge.
Caroline
The first is global healthcare. The second, sustainability and the third, environmental. Sajeev, which challenge did you choose and why did you choose it?
Sajeev
I chose the global healthcare challenge, and the reason I chose this challenge is because it has a very personal connection to me. Unfortunately, about a year ago, my uncle was diagnosed with an aggressive form of kidney cancer and so I had to witness the pain and agony associated with the disease and even the existing treatments. So I wanted to try to pursue a project that would allow me to look at a treatment option that was less invasive, less painful. To try to ease the pain for individuals put in similar situations. And that lead to the inception of my project which falls under the umbrella of the global healthcare challenge.
Caroline
Wow. What a great story. Thanks for sharing. Let's talk a little bit more about that project. But first, what problem were you trying to solve?
Sajeev
When we talk in the context of cancer, existing treatments include chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and radiation therapy, which are often expensive, lengthy, and have many side effects that more so, degrade the quality of life of patients having to suffer these diseases.
Sajeev
I was trying to find a cancer treatment option that would be noninvasive, not so painful, and basically just allow the patient in question to have a better quality of life and that was the idea that I was pursuing with my project.
Caroline
What solution did you come up with?
Sajeev
In my project, what I've done is I've come up with a new way to think about building these nanoparticle-based drug carriers. Now these can basically be seen as these nano-vehicles almost, that once they enter the bloodstream, they can go and travel around in the body and then selectively deliver drugs to certain cell populations. And then once these drugs are delivered, they can have a therapeutic effect. What I've done is I've come up with a new way to build these nanoparticle-based drug carriers for disease treatment. And I applied this method to lung cancer, breast cancer and colorectal cancer, and found that this method was 10 times faster to implement, seven times less expensive and five times more effective than existing gold standards. Having said that, this method is also universally applicable, so with slight modifications you can use it for the treatment of other cancers and even other diseases, like neurodegenerative diseases.
Caroline
You mentioned that it can address lung, breast, and colorectal cancer. How did you find that out?
Sajeev
Well, I basically engineered my nanoparticle-based drug delivery system and then I cultured lung, breast, and colorectal cancer cells in my lab, then looked at the ability of these particles to enter these cell populations and then evaluated their therapeutic potential against existing gold standards and found that my method was more efficient and less expensive than what's currently out there.
Caroline
You mentioned your lab - as a high school student, how do you have access to all of these resources?
Sajeev
It's basically just sending out a lot of emails. Bugging a lot of people until you end up with someone who's willing to take you on. I just sent out hundreds of emails to professors from the University of Waterloo and I got a lot of rejections, but I stayed persistent and, after a few months, I did end up getting an approval to work in a lab. A nanotechnology lab at the University of Waterloo. Then as I went on to make more and more connections, I got to work in a marine biology lab in the University of Waterloo and I also was able to work in the SickKids Hospital in Toronto, with the help of the Spark Institute, which helps me with a lot of my experimentation as well. I've worked all over the place and have the opportunity to be guided by such nice postdocs and mentors who have really helped me in shaping my project. It was just sending out a bunch of emails and hoping for the best.
Caroline
You mentioned some pretty heavy hitters across public and private partners. What's it been like to work with the University of Waterloo and the other institutions that you mentioned?
Sajeev
I think it's been a great experience, honestly. The people there, they're just so supportive and so well versed in this field and they're just so willing to help you out. When you talk about professors or post doctorate fellows or graduate students or undergraduate students, whoever it was in the lab or even in the SickKids Hospital, the Spark Institute. They're always willing to be there for you. They're always willing to answer your questions. They're always willing to guide you and to help you and help you improve your work and do whatever it is that they need to do, provide whatever suggestions they need to provide to help you ensure that whatever it is you're doing is actually making a big impact and ends up getting completed at the end of it.
Caroline
It sounds like you had a really great support system there, but you were the spearhead of this initiative. How did you balance a full-time high school experience and course load and solving some of the world's biggest challenges in biotech?
Sajeev
I think the simplest answer would be I have keys. I was working really early mornings, working really late nights and so the key is what allowed me to be in at 4:00 am and I'd worked till like 9:00 am and then I'd come back from 3:00 pm and work till midnight. That was my first semester though. That was what most of my first semester consisted of was just going in super early and working till school, then going to school, then coming back, then working late nights. But second semester was a lot nicer because I managed to actually take co-op as one of my courses and my co-op, which was two credits for me, involved working at the University of Waterloo. And that allowed me to better be able to balance my schedule in a healthier way, in terms of giving me the chance to sleep more. So, it was working in school till around noon and then going straight to the lab from there and then working from noon to eight or whatever the schedule was. And I'd also go in on weekends as well. That would help me to be able to get the time that I needed to get a in order to be able to finish my project.
Caroline
What was motivating you? What kept you going on the harder days?
Sajeev
I think it was a combination of just thinking back to those three months in the hospital with my uncle, which I still look at as probably the worst three months of my life, but also the support system I have at home, which is my grandma, my mom, my uncle. They're all just so loving and so supportive. I've complained so many times to my mom and to my uncle and to my grandma about being frustrated about not getting data. Because the thing about research is 99 percent of the time things don't work and you stick it out for that 1 percent of the time that they do work because the feeling is just indescribable when it does work. But most of the time it doesn't. And so, I did have a lot of times when I'd go to my grandma and my mom, my uncle. I'd complain about the work to them and they just say, just keep going, just keep working, don't stop what you're doing because if you believe in what you're doing, eventually things will come through. And they did.
Caroline
And how did you know you had a breakthrough?
Sajeev
I came up with the idea, and I did some research, and I found some research supporting the fact that it could be a potential breakthrough, but I was never sure until I actually went and did the experimentation. And sometimes you just have to have faith in whatever it is you come up with. And even with my idea right now, every day I go into the lab, it changes a little bit. From when I first started working, it's completely different. You just keep reading and you just keep doing experiments and you just keep hoping that whatever it is you're doing will lead to something significant. And that's, honestly, in terms of knowing that it was a breakthrough, I never really knew, I just hoped that it would work and I just put in the time and the reading that I thought was necessary to get it to work.
Caroline
So it sounds like some really hard work, but a good dose of persistence. What was your biggest challenge when you were thinking about solving this problem?
Sajeev
I think the biggest challenge was probably balancing school with all of this because there's a trade off at certain times that you need to make. Of course, school is very important, and I would often put that first and then this afterwards. But then towards the end I started putting this first because I realized, especially when the results were coming in, we're looking positive. I realized that this could have the potential to be something significant. Especially in that first semester, balancing between school and lab work was challenging because you have to spend time studying and then you also have to spend time in the lab and there is no procedure in the lab that'll only take one hour. Even off the top of my head, the simplest procedure can take two to three hours at least. It was being able to facilitate that balance. I think that was the hardest thing that would often lead to frustration and but again, like I mentioned, my family is my support system and they were always there, and they were always supportive and they're always just saying that just keep working. Whatever it is you're doing, we're always with you.
Caroline
I can imagine your family is incredibly proud of you right now.
Sajeev
I told my uncle and my mom and they both told me that they were jumping off the walls, so, yeah. I'm very happy as well. It's just such an honor.
Caroline
Great. And what are you most proud of yourself?
Sajeev
I think, just again, coming to this point. I came up with the theory for this idea a long time ago. More than a year ago now, at this point, almost two years ago. And I never thought it would get to this point. I always thought it was a great idea. Maybe I'd do the first stage of experimenting, maybe I'd get to the second stage if I was lucky. I initially had six stages of experimentation planned out. But I got all six done and I'm now at a point where there's whole new way of building drugs that my idea has kind of turned into and anyone can use it and it's inexpensive, it's efficient and it's high performing and, most importantly, once we get the actual in vivo testing done and are able to prove that it would work in a living organism, then it could have the potential to better the lives of people who are suffering from these diseases, and I think that's the most important thing at the end of the day.
Caroline
You mentioned that the idea came to you a long time ago. Tell me how that happened? Was is a literal light bulb that came on or what happened?
Sajeev
No, no. It never is. It's interesting because sometimes whenever I explained how my idea started, I like to just refer to the fact that sometimes the simplest of questions can lead to the biggest of answers. I mentioned before that I was in the hospital with my uncle, and then I started emailing professor. And then I got a meeting with this lab, and this lab has already specialized in making nanoparticles. I was looking at the toxicity of nanoparticles in biological media. Basically, their effects on the body. What I noticed was, for certain nanoparticles, when they were put in serum versus in water – in serum they started clumping up and I didn't understand why, and I couldn't really do any data analysis with that because you just can't. You can't really work with that. I was very, very frustrated and I'd read many, many research papers and nothing really explained what was happening. Then I did a very simple test. I used something called dynamic light scattering. You can always think ... You can almost think of it like a ruler for nanoparticles. I measured the size of the nanoparticle in water versus in biological media and I found that the size in media was way, way, way bigger. I didn't understand why. The question was, why is this getting bigger? That was my question. And so I read a lot of research papers again and after digging for several weeks, almost several months, I came across the answer.
There's basically this layer of proteins that forms around any nanoparticle once it enters the biological environment. And the analogy I use for this is, you can almost think of it like jumping into a sticky ball pit. If you jump inside a sticky ball pit and jump out, you're covered in sticky balls. So when a nanoparticle enters the blood, it's covered in proteins. It's the same kind of idea. But these proteins, they mask any targeting ability embedded in your nanoparticle. This is the main reason why with chemotherapy or with existing treatments – they enter the blood, they get covered with proteins, they lose their targeting ability – and they're just floating around now. I wanted to try to find a way to control that layer of proteins. To instead promote the targeting of these particles to where it is that they need to go. And that was really the inception of my idea and that was the breakthrough as you call it.
Caroline
That's perfect. It's funny, but it also, it totally works. You have had a very successful biotech career at 16. What's next for you?
Sajeev
After completing grade 12, I definitely want to go to university to pursue a field in biotech. I'm hoping to complete an MD PhD program at whatever post-secondary institution I go to. And yeah, that's pretty much it.
Caroline
All right, let's talk about 12th grade. What classes are you going to take? What are you going to focus on?
Sajeev
Oh, my semester is packed now. I already have my courses picked, I have AP calc, AP physics, AP biology and AP chemistry in first semester, and then I have astronomy, political science, English and French second semester.
Caroline
Astronomy. What do you think the stars are going to tell us about biotech?
Sajeev
My interest with astronomy is just a reflective of my interest in science in general. Of course I love biotechnology, but I'm also just fascinated with science in general. It's how we explain how the world around us works. It's every facet of science, I find, is really interesting. Not just biology, but also when you talk about astronomy, I just find it really cool. Even black holes. How did we get here? How did the planets form? That just to go with my interest in science. Not necessarily correlated to biotech.
Caroline
You've got a pretty heavy course load. What are you going to do for fun?
Sajeev
For fun I play piano. I've actually been playing piano for a while now. I'm in grade 10 RCM level and so I like playing piano. Classical pieces as well as playing Bollywood music from my grandmother because she likes Bollywood music and I can play piano by ear. I play for her and she sings over top and it's a fun time.
Caroline
Oh, that's awesome.
Caroline
Well, Sajeev, it has been an absolute pleasure talking to you today. Congratulations on your award and we are very much looking forward to your very bright future.
Sajeev
Thank you very much. It's been a real pleasure.