While this is the time of the year when "senioritis" takes hold of those who are getting ready to finish their high school careers, Jong Hyuck "Dennis" Won has nobler pursuits on his plate, namely curing cancer. Won recently took first place and best in category at the 2010 Intel International Science and Engineering fair in San Jose, Calif.
His presentation, "Novel Identification/Subjugation of Prostate Cancer Cells’ Intrinsic Resistance Mechanism to Cisplatin Using Natural Substances" took aim at prostate cancer cells, which rank among the most resistant among cancer cells.
WON examined ways to reduce the amount of cisplatin, a platinum-based chemotherapy drug, which also causes toxicity in healthy cells, with natural substances vitamin K3 and EGCG, the anti-oxidant found on green tea.
He also discovered a novel function of a gene called PCPH, which when mutated can produce the highly-resistant cancer cells that make up many cases of prostate cancer.
"I think the judges were impressed by the creative approach I took towards meeting my goal," Won said. "I thought it was a solid idea, but it still blew my mind when I found out I won."
Won will travel to Stockholm, Sweden in December to attend the Nobel Prize ceremonies.
Since coming to the United States from South Korea just three years ago, Won has taken giant steps towards a promising career in the sciences.
"Two years ago I tried to get internships with places like NIH and NASA, but I couldn’t since I wasn’t a citizen," Won said. "But while participating in a math competition, I met Dr. Mira Jung, who helped set me up with an internship at Georgetown Hospital."
Jung, a professor in the department of radiation medicine at the Lombardi Cancer Center at Georgetown Hospital, took Won under her wing and showed him how to perform basic lab procedures, with the idea that he would eventually start doing his own research.
"He had the right attitude to do the work when he started, he made some mistakes in the beginning, but I tried to give him opportunities, and he learned," Jung said.
Within nine months, Won was doing his own independent research. He has been volunteering at Georgetown Hospital for the past two years, and even used the staff there to conduct a survey as part of his initial research for his project, handing out surveys to doctors to discover what types of chemotherapy drugs they use and why.
WON WILL BE HEADING to Stanford University in the fall, studying biomedical engineering. He says engineering has always been a passion for him, because it combines math, physics, chemistry and computer science, all of which he is skilled at.
"I went into engineering because it’s a more interdisciplinary approach, it doesn’t just involve memorizing things, it’s a lot of problem solving and logical thinking," he said. "I want to apply the knowledge and engineering skill I gain to help sick patients and improve the medical field."
He won’t be relaxing during his time off though, he heads back to South Korea later this month to work at Cha Hospital, interning at their stem cell research facility.
"I’m hoping to get a sense of where stem cell research is going," Won said. "I think it’s a major breakthrough method that could result in a cancer cure."
While Won certainly has his plate full, Jung thinks that he has everything needed to succeed in a field that is waiting for a new generation of discoveries.
"Work ethic is everything [in this field]," Jung said. "No one will tell you what to do, and he’s learned that. He’s learned to ask his own questions and find out where he wants to take his research, and I like to see an individual make that kind of effort."