The mystery of how these drugs work intrigued two Toronto-area Northern Secondary School students, who decided to try creating an artificial environment to test the effects of different brain-related medications.
Alexander Tigert and Daniel Zhang, 17-year old Grade 12 students, genetically engineered Baker’s yeast to manufacture D2 dopamine receptors found in the human brain.
Creating eventually about 5,000 batches of this novel testing ground, they introduced a wide range of drugs for mental disorders to see how the sensitive receptors reacted.
In the central nervous system, D2 dopamine receptors are involved in pleasure, cognition, memory, learning, and fine motor control. Malfunctioning D2 dopamine receptors are also believed to play a role in substance abuse, pathological gambling, Tourette’s syndrome, and Parkinson’s.
“Alex and Daniel were able to capture both direct effects of the drugs — the ones we think we know — as well as every other effect, including the side effects that are extremely difficult to predict,” says their mentor Dr Corey Nislow, Assistant Professor at the Banting and Best Department of Medical Research at the University of Toronto.
Since their test model was an entirely new process, it involved going ‘back to the drawing board’ over and over to learn from mistakes and make revisions in the experiment. “Re-working the experimental process and re-incorporating ideas in a new way made our method more effective,” says Alex.
“We were surprised at the versatility of yeast as a model organism … about 50 per cent of yeast genes are same as human genes,” says Daniel.
They both agree the best part of the Sanofi BioGENEius Competition is the excitement of developing an original science idea and seeing it manifested in a successful project. “We have also enjoyed the spirit of camaraderie between all the competitors. They have become a network of like-minded peers.”
“Alex and Daniel represent the future of scientific research in Canada. They are extremely bright, creative and willing to endure the peaks and valleys of research,” said Dr Nislow.