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April 30, 2014

Talent Search Highlights Promising Flu Treatment

Tiffany Trader
Intel Science Talent Search

The last couple weeks have seen a number of student competitions showcasing some remarkably talented young people with an aptitude for HPC and science. Another student who has gained the recognition of the community and his peers via his scientific and computing prowess is Eric S. Chen, who last month took home first prize at the Intel Science Talent Search for his promising work developing a new class of influenza drugs. The honor came with a cash prize of $100,000.

The 17-year-old, a senior at Canyon Crest Academy in San Diego, combined computer modeling with structural studies and biological validation to identify compounds capable of blocking an enzyme called endonuclease, which the flu virus needs to spread. The aim is to develop a new class of drugs to control flu outbreaks during a pandemic to allow time for a vaccine to be developed.

Chen is no stranger to the science awards circuit. He also won the grand prize at the 2013 Google Science Fair and the top individual honor at the 2013 Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology. But the modest high school senior says he was still surprised by the results.

“I had no idea I was going to win,” Chen told the San Diego Union-Tribune, after the awards were announced in Washington, D.C. “If I had placed between fifth and 10th, I would have been incredibly happy.”

Chen has had the fortune of working with Rommie Amaro, an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UC San Diego, since the summer of 2012 in a lab that is just down the street from the famed Salk Institute. Gen-Sheng Feng, a molecular biologist at the UCSD School of Medicine, has also had a hand in mentoring Chen.

Chen’s interest in influenza as a field of study was set off by the 2009 outbreak of the virus that came to be known as “swine flu.” The H1N1 strain took the lives of more than 18,000 people worldwide with the first cases occurring in Southern California.

The Intel science competition could draw the attention of drug companies with the resources to sponsor the next stages of research. “Hopefully we can work together to solve these problems and get these discoveries onto the market,” Chen told the U-T.

The Intel Science Talent Search, which was founded in 1942 as the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, has an impressive track record of turning out science all stars. Seven participants have gone on to win Nobel Prizes and 11 won “Genius” grants from the MacArthur Foundation.

Chen plans to use the prize money to help pay for college – either Harvard or Stanford. And whether he has a career as a scientist or an entrepreneur or both, he wants to make a difference by helping to solve major world-class problems. He’s off to a good start. Beyond his scientific endeavors, Chen serves as co-president of his high school fencing club, plays piano, tutors Mandarin-speaking senior citizens on computer essentials and runs a math contest for middle schoolers.

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