While some high school students were enjoying their summer vacation, Neil Davey, a 2014 Montgomery Blair High School graduate, was developing a biotechnology device that separates cancer cells from healthy cells during summer 2013.
On Tuesday, Davey won third place at the BioGENEius Challenge sponsored by the Biotechnology Institute at the 2014 BIO International Convention, an international event for the biotech industry, in San Diego.
Davey, 18, who lives in Gaithersburg, was one of 15 finalists from across the country. He traveled to San Diego on Sunday to present the device to some of the leading names in biotechnology.
“It feels good and exciting ....,” Davey said. “It is like a motivation to me that the research has been recognized at this level. ... I learned that, first of all, there’s a lot to learn.”
First place received a cash prize of $7,500. The second-, third-, and fourth-place winners won $5,000, $2,500 and $1,000, respectively.
Davey’s creation is essentially a small chip device no bigger than a television remote control.
“What I do is I make these things called microfluidic drops and I encapsulate individual drops,” he explained.
Davey then amplifies the cells through a DNA process. He can distinguish which cells are cancer cells and which are healthy cells.
He worked on the research for 3 1/2 months last summer at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Prior to that, he participated in the Siemens Competition in Boston in 2012. Davey was selected as a national finalist; he won third place.
He worked at the U.S. Food and Drug Admnistration during the summer of 2012. His work involved making a vaccine for a blood-borne parasitic disease.
“The challenge of detecting rare pathogens and cells from the blood motivated me to study tumor cells in the bloodstream of cancer patients,” he wrote in an email before the BioGENEius results were announced.
Scientific research is not new for Davey. Science was an everyday conversation during family dinners.
“I guess I‘ve been always curious about science ... and my dad used to be a scientist. ... I would always ask him why things happened,” Davey said.
According to a press release, the BioGENEius Challenge is a top biotechnology research competition for high school students from around the world.
Davey said he is excited about his research and has filed a patent application to protect the idea.
“So far, this project has been successful enough that it’s actually being tested in patients with prostate cancer at a hospital in Massachusetts,” Davey said.
The group of judges who reviewed Davey’s research includes representatives from Pfizer, Amgen, Sanofi Pasteur, Life Technologies, and SFC Fluidics.
During his trip, Davey had the support of his oldest sister and father. He also thanked his mentor, Huidan Zhang from the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and the teachers at Montgomery Blair High School.
Davey will attend Harvard University in the fall. He plans to major in biology and economics.