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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.



Memo from Canada to US: Hey, Open Your Windows!

By   Shlomo Maital   

   I am currently at York University, Toronto, Canada, on a brief visit speaking for Technion Canada and assisting a colleague with an entrepreneurship program.

   I am deeply happy to be in the country of my birth, and not in the US. On entering Canada, at Pearson Airport, a huge sign reads: Canada Welcomes Everyone!   In contrast, US border officials recently hassled my wife, who is an American citizen (!), probably because we live in Israel.

   America has a friendly, liberal neighbor to the North. Canada has solved problems the US still struggles with. Yet – America’s windows to the north are dark and shuttered. Why?


     * Under Canada’s Live-In Caregiver Program, established in 1992, Philippine caregivers get six months of training in their home country, contract to care for Canadian elderly in their own homes, and in return, eventually get citizenship for themselves and their families. Our loved one had 17 years of loving expert care by Philippine caregivers 24/7, enabling her to live in dignity in her own home to the end.  In contrast, America’s eldercare system, or lack of one, is, according to MIT Professor Paul Osterman, “a train wreck”.

     * Under Canada’s nimble immigration system, 330,000 immigrants will be admitted in 2019! That would be equivalent to nearly 3 million immigrants, if the same proportion were admitted to the US. Disaster? Invasion? No. In Canada 60% of foreign nationals are ‘highly educated’, according to the OECD. Canada’s “Express Entry” system invites immigrants to become permanent residents weekly, as spots open up.

   Here at York U., I am privileged to observe a phenomenal program, led by my friend and colleague Prof. Andrew Maxwell, that leads 19 incredible Canadian teenagers through a startup boot-camp. Today and then again Friday, they will ‘pitch’ their startup ideas, tackling tough problems, in teams of 3 or 4.   Of the 19, I believe at least 14 are from immigrant backgrounds.  They won their place through a series of challenging competitions.

       It is no coincidence. Immigrants’ children are driven by high aspirations. I know. I am a child of immigrants, whose parents were welcomed by Canada and thus saved from a bitter end, later, in Europe.

      I wonder why America’s windows to the north are permanently shut.   In business, companies regularly do best-practice benchmarking, to find ways to do better. Why doesn’t the United States, led by a self-defined business tycoon, do the same? Forget the President — why don’t elected politicians open their windows and look North? They might learn a few things.  

       Canadians are regularly mocked in the US – our accents, our naivete…. Too bad, America. We have national health care, we look after our elderly, we have affordable college tuition, and we don’t have assault weapons in every closet.   Ever wonder why?    






What I Learned from Lee Kwan Yew

By Shlomo  Maital   

  Lee Kwan Yew

Singapore’s legendary founding leader, Lee Kwan Yew, has passed away; he was 91. 

 I personally learned a great many  things from this wise and courageous man, who led Singapore to independence in 1965 and like the founding leader of my country, David Ben Gurion, knew the odds were strongly against survival.    He shaped a prosperous country with per capita GDP of over $60,000, double that of my country Israel. 

   I recall two things vividly.  First, in the early days of Singapore, he appealed to the mothers of Singapore, to “urge your children to study math”. Why? So they could study engineering in college. Why? So Singapore could build its wealth on knowledge, having no resources or land.  And it worked. They did, they did, and it did. 

  Second – he explained why America leads the world.  China has 1.4 billion people.  Among them are geniuses.  America has only some 340 million.  But America is a magnet. It attracts talent from the whole world – its talent pool is 7 billion, not 340 million.  That is a huge advantage.  My own parents migrated to Canada as immigrants from Bessarabia, now Moldova, worked hard, and passed their aspirations on to me.  Canada, I think, benefited.  

    Recently, Harvard Professor Joseph Nye wrote a book, with the title asking a question, is the American excellence and domination over?   His answer was, no.  But I’m not sure. Because many Americans (especially the Republican party) are anti-immigrant,  and I personally have waited hours and hours and hours to have my visa approved (in Toronto), just so I could go to Boston to teach a course FOR FREE. (Babson insisted I enter on a visa, rather than as a Canadian visitor).  Amusingly, I had to show my Princeton diploma to the immigration official; it was in Latin!  That took another few hours. 

     I know Singapore well, having taught there.  I got to know a very senior civil servant, a man of enormous wisdom.  I often wished my own country could have civil servants of such quality – and leadership like Lee Kwan Yew.  Very few countries do.  He will be missed.   

Can You Store Wind Energy? Danielle Fong Finds a Way

By Shlomo Maital   

  wind turbine

One of the biggest as-yet unsolved problems in generating sustainable energy is that of storage – how do you store solar or wind power, for use when there is no sun (night time) or wind (calm periods)?  This is vital, so wind turbines, for instance, can provide 100% all-the-time reliable power.   A young creative Canadian entrepreneur named Danielle Fong may have cracked the problem. Her story is told in the excellent Atlantic Monthly department, “Eureka Moments”, by Stephanie Porter.

   Danielle studied at Canadia’s Dalhousie University, in New Brunswick, graduating with honours in Physics and Computer Science at the age of 17, then beginning a doctoral program that year at Princeton University’s Plasma Physics lab. She left in 2007 to found LightSail in California in 2008, and was named Forbes Magazine’s Energy Standout (Under age 30) for her work.

   LightSail’s technology achieves 90 per cent ‘round trip’ efficiency (storing and then providing the stored power), which is extremely high, almost unheard of. Her method uses compressed air, with a dense water spray used to capture the heat created when air is compressed, then store it for later use. Danielle’s father, Greg Fong, is direct of LightSail’s business development. He notes that the technology could offer remote communities and factories, far from the electricity grid, a way to generate stable electricity from stable sources. This could be of great importance for China, for instance.

   Over 30 wind farms are already in use or in development in Nova Scotia. Billions are being invested too in tidal energy. But the way to store all this energy does not yet exists. Young Danielle may have the answer. Her idea is a huge “wow” and shows why great entrepreneurs with game-changing ideas always tackle the biggest problems around.

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital