Toronto Teenager Marshall Zhang Discovers A Potential Treatment For Cystic Fibrosis

Posted May 17, 2011

[Image credit: Tom Devecseri]

Marshall Zhang is an 11th grade student that received first place on Tuesday May 10th at the 2011 Sanofi-Aventis BioTalent Challenge. The Challenge is a content where students conduct research projects with mentor help. Zhang used a supercomputer to discover a potential treatment of the genetic disorder cystic fibrosis.

Cystic fibrosis is a condition that is caused by a genetic mutation. The genetic mutation causes a thick mucus to build up in the lungs, which could be fatal. Cystic fibrosis generally occurs to Caucasians with northern Europe ancestry. It happens in about 1 out of 3,000 live births. This condition currently has no cure.

When at his mentor’s lab, Zhang used the Canadian SCINET supercomputing network to find how two new compounds would react against the defective protein that causes the condition. By using certain algorithms, Zhang was able to create a simulation of the reaction. Then he tested the compounds on living cells. “They actually worked together in creating an effect that was greater than the sum of its parts,” said Zhang in an interview with “I have identified certain chemical structures that are key in the corrective effects of these molecules, as well as identified two molecular targets on the protein for future therapeutics.”

Zhang believes that when testing out the compounds in the human body, it can turn out to be toxic or ineffective. But his research could lay some important groundwork for other discoveries. Zhang’s mentor is Dr. Christine Bear, a researcher at the Hospital for Sick Children’s Research Institute in Toronto, Ontario.