How a 16-year-old Helps to Cure Cancer –

Why and How High Schools Must Change, and Fast!

By   Shlomo Maital

            Bhavya Mohan (center)

    I am at York University, Toronto, Canada. As a part-time journalist (Jerusalem Report), I’ve interviewed many creative people whose ideas changed the world. But last evening was unique and unforgettable. Because I spoke with Bhavya Mohan, an incredible 16-year-old from Ottawa, Canada, going into Grade 11, who made a breakthrough discovery for treatment of cancer. It won him first prize in Canada’s high school science project competition. He will head to Bulgaria in the Fall to represent Canada at a European science fair contest.

     Bhavya’s project was called “Taking ABiTE out of Cancer: A Novel Aptamer based BiTE for Cancer Immunotherapy”. I’ll try my best to explain it in a moment.

     Bhavya was part of a group of 19 exceptional high school students from across Canada, participating in York University Professor Andrew Maxwell’s “entrepreneurship boot camp”, which leads these young people, in teams, through the startup process, at the Lassonde School of Engineering.

    Today these amazing young people make their final ‘pitches’.  

       It’s hard to believe, but Bhavya’s breakthrough finding is real, and in his research, he really was the Principal Investigator.

       Press accounts stated: “Mohan’s project introduces a novel platform that will improve the human body’s ability to naturally detect and eliminate cancerous cells and be an affordable alternative to current immunotherapies.”

     If you wish, reader, you can skip the next 500 words, my feeble effort to understand Bhavya’s scientific breakthrough.  

       Background: A relatively new approach to treating cancer is based on helping the body’s immune system to kill cancer cells. Cancer cells are clever and are really good at defending against the body’s killer T-cells (that kill invaders).

     For example: “Bi-specific T-cell engagers (BiTEs) are a class of artificial bispecific monoclonal antibodies that are investigated for the use as anti-cancer drugs. They direct a host’s immune system, more specifically the T cells’ cytotoxic activity, against cancer cells.”   In other words, it’s a drug that helps bring the body’s T-cells into contact with cancer cells and kill them. Kind of like a 911 call directing police to a crime scene.

     It can be lifesaving, in treating, for instance, multiple myeloma.

       BiTE is a registered trademark of Micromet AG, a fully owned subsidiary of Amgen Inc., a leading US-based biotech company.

       BiTE treatments are, of course, super-expensive. Bhavya told me, a single dose can cost $4,000 – and you may need a lot of them. By 2030, Bhavya explained, this type of immunological treatment may create a $36 b. market.

       Side-effects: There are two problems with BiTE. One – its cost. Only for the rich. Second: its side effects. The BiTE treatment can lead to an auto-immune response, where the body’s immune system attacks the body itself, and patients die. Now, if you are dying of multiple myeloma, it’s worth the risk. But patients live in fear, while getting the treatment, that they will survive the cancer but die from the treatment. Quite terrifying.

       According to Canadian press accounts, Bhavya said:

“I’ve known quite a few cancer patients who’ve actually undergone many treatments. So I knew there was just a need for something to be done. So I wanted to go into that field,” said Mohan. “Whenever I see there’s an issue, whenever I see there’s a need for something, I always try to think of an innovative way by which I can solve those concerns.”   Inspired by meeting a cancer patient who was successfully treated for the disease but suffered dangerous side-effects, Ottawa high school student Bhavya Mohan came up with a new way to boost the body’s ability to detect and kill cancerous cells.   It could be an affordable alternative to current immunotherapies, according to organizers of the Canada-Wide Science Fair 2019 in Fredericton where Mohan won Thursday for the nation’s most “inspiring and ingenious” project.

       The Breakthrough: “Aptamers (from the Latin aptus – fit, and Greek meros – part) are oligonucleotide or peptide molecules that bind to a specific target molecule.”   Bhavya’s idea: We can use aptamers (DNA strands) to bind T-cells to the cancer cells. Because of their nature, these cells do not ever cause auto-immune fatal reactions. They’re DNA!   And AbiTE works just like regular BiTE molecules. And best of all, they’re cheap. One dose, Bhavya told me, costs $60, rather than $4,000!

         (I cautioned him – Amgen is not going to be real thrilled about this. You are disrupting their bottom line!).

         Many creative ideas involve connecting things others would not think of connecting. Bhavya connected BiTE immune therapy with aptimers, X + Y. This is a common sign of a creative mind – the ability to link seemingly-unconnected things.

     So —   How in the world does a 16-year-old attain such an amazing discovery?

       Bhavya Mohan’s parents were born in India. His father was born and raised in New Delhi, and his mother, in the state of Behar. They emigrated to the US, initially, then to Canada. They work for the government, in Ottawa.

          Many of the 19 high school students in Prof. Maxwell’s program had parents who came to Canada as immigrants. Last night, in conversation, I asked them about this. They explained simply that immigrant parents have high aspirations for their kids, and hope and dream their children will fulfill careers they themselves could not. This is simply rocket fuel. I know. My parents were immigrants.          

         But make no mistake. As press accounts affirm (and I can, too): “In most ways, Bhavya Mohan is like any other 16-year-old high school kid.   He likes to spend time with friends. He plays guitar and basketball. Except when he isn’t doing those things, he’s winning science fairs and making breakthrough discoveries in cancer research.”

         How did it all start? Bhavya told me that in Grade 5, when he was only 11 (!), he reached out by email to biology professors. Most did not respond. [Would YOU respond to an 11 year old, who wanted to do research with you??]   One did — Professor William Willmore, at Ottawa’s Carleton University.   He gave Bhavya tough reading assignments – and Bhavya eventually won his spurs and became Principle Investigator in a very difficult research project.

         Kudos to Professor Willmore!

       What does the future hold? Bhavya wants to patent his findings. I urged him to read the best-selling book Patent It Yourself, so he can better guide the patent lawyers. I also recommended that he gain some financial backing, to apply for a series of patents, since single patents often can be circumvented – and Big Pharma would love nothing better, to protect their billion-dollar drugs.

           He also wants to start a drug discovery company. I cautioned him that he will need massive resources for FDA trials, and that in Pharma, big whales have been known to swallow little fish, just to keep their disruptive cheap drugs off the market.


       Last night, I asked these 19 students, how in the world did they survive high school – where teachers often feel threatened by bright students and their questions that the teachers cannot answer, or even understand, and simply shut them down?

       Some said their schools were supportive. Many simply said, they did their science projects on their own, without help or backing, often facing opposition. One brilliant young student told me her teachers insisted she should not study science, she wasn’t smart enough. That was a recurring theme. She had the resilience to defy them.   One student said he had to spend his own money to buy equipment.

       The historically-black US colleges used to have a mantra for fund-raising: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste”. These 19 young people’s minds have developed amazingly. But what about all those minds that have not, because of teachers who are poorly trained, badly educated, fearful of bright kids, and are hence massively destructive of their  students’ motivation and creativity?  

         What is the one thing you would change, I asked the kids, if you could, at your school? There was a strong response.   Fewer tests (especially, brain-destroying multiple choice, beloved by lazy teachers), and far more projects.

         Project based learning. Scrap the tests. Get the kids to work in teams on challenging problems. Because that is what they will do, when they become adults. So why not get them started now?

         I have been an educator for 52 years. I gave a lot of exams. I hated them. I myself learned to excel at taking exams, so I could win scholarships. That nearly ruined my creativity – it taught me to revere old knowledge, rather than challenge it and come up with new ideas.

           President George W. Bush’s first action in January 2001, after his election, was to initiate the No Child Left Behind Act. It called for extensive measurement of school quality, through standard tests.  Schools got a ‘bottom line’, just like businesses. 

      Result: throughout the US, teachers taught kids how to take tests, rather than how to cure cancer. They had to. School budgets depended on it!  Teachers hated it. The kids, even more!  Nearly 20 years later, the destruction of young minds has been MASSIVE as a result. And Bush’s failed idea spread abroad, even to my country Israel. How sad.

           When will we wake up, look at these young minds, and try to educate them as they themselves choose?  

         Not everyone is Bhavya, I know. But there are a lot more Bhavya’s out there who simply fall by the wayside.

        And it’s a terrible shame. Unforgiveable.