Quebec Teen Attends Israel's World Science Conference And Gains Recognition For Unravelling Brain’s Mysteries

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Justin Lessard-WajcerHe’s just 18, but Justin Lessard-Wajcer is preoccupied with a disease primarily of old age: Alzheimer’s. His fascination with all the brain’s ills, from Parkinson’s to depression to hyperactivity, led him to invent a tool that may allow scientists to understand this organ better.

Lessard-Wajcer, a Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf student, returned last month from Israel, where he was among 400 science prodigies from around the globe selected to attend the first World Science Conference (WSC), sponsored by the Israeli government with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and led by 15 Nobel laureates and other outstanding international academics.

Success has come not only early, but also quickly to Lessard-Wajcer since April, when he earned top honours at the Quebec edition of the prestigious Sanofi Biogenius Canada (SBC) competition for high school students.

He won the $5,000 first prize for his optimization of a new technique that creates highly detailed pictures of the brain, which could, for example, spot the precursors of Alzheimer’s earlier than other imaging such as magnetic resonance or PET scans.

His project was found to be an improvement upon CLARITY, a method of making brain tissue transparent developed at Stanford University last year. Essentially, fat, which makes up 60 per cent of the organ, is extracted, allowing slices as thin as 1.2 mm to be looked at under a special microscope.

Working in the lab of Prof. Hélène Girouard at the Université de Montréal (UdeM) only since January, Lessard Wajcer built a machine that cuts the time the tissue – in this case from mice – must soak in a clarifying solution from two months to less than 48 hours.

“With this, you can see the whole architecture of the brain – in 3D,” he said. The teen calls the machine simply X, and it is now in its third prototype.

“We still don’t know anything about the brain, even though it’s the most important organ,” Lessard-Wajcer said. “That’s why it is so fascinating.” In preparation for the competition, SBC pairs outstanding science students with academic mentors to work on a “real-world” research project.

Winning the provincial competition earned Lessard-Wajcer a berth at the national SBC competition in May in Ottawa, hosted by the National Research Council of Canada and judged by respected scientists.

There, Lessard-Wajcer won both the commercialization and the professionalism prizes. The former recognizes the project with the most commercial potential, while the latter recognizes the student with the highest commitment to professionalism and etiquette. “Waiting two months is not efficient or financially viable. I thought, why not make a machine that is faster and more reliable?”

Invention aids scientists

His secret? Use electricity and heat to melt the fat first. The sample is attached to electrodes and circulates while it is clarifying, to accelerate the process. He used a 3D printer to help produce X.

His research paper includes samples of very clear images of the mouse brain and the pinpoint in the hippocampus where Alzheimer’s (the rodents do get the disease) is believed to be starting.

Targeting the disease’s origin at the molecular level offers a better chance of someday treating Alzheimer’s progress, he hopes. “By the time you see Alzheimer’s with an MRI, it’s too late,” he said.

The brain for Lessard-Wajcer is an unexplored frontier. “Studying the brain offers endless possibilities,” he said.

Attending the Israeli conference was especially interesting for Lessard-Wajcer because it showcased the country’s innovation in science and technology. He was one of only four Canadian students, and the sole Quebecer, and among the youngest of the 400 who came from 70 other countries.

He not only hobnobbed with Nobel Prize-winners and networked with other youthful talent, but got a taste of the Israeli entrepreneurial spirit, meeting the heads of startup companies and gaining an understanding of co-operation between academia and government. He also got a chance to talk up X to an appreciative audience.

“It was a wonderful exchange of knowledge. I got a lot of advice – it was very inspiring, quite thrilling,” he said. “Here, the patent process is long and complicated. In Israel, it happens every day. It’s an entirely different environment.”

Now in his second year of cEgep in health sciences, Lessard-Wajcer is leaving all options open as to where to go to university. Certainly, he want to go into medicine, but hopes that at least half his time will be devoted to research.

While the UdeM, where he is now a researcher in the department of pharmacology(he has his own business card), might seem the likely choice, he could go outside Canada.

While at the WSC he was invited to applyfor a one-year fellowship that pays all costs at any university in Israel in any department. It’s a tempting offer he is considering.

This was his second trip to Israel; he was there with his family for his bar mitzvah. His parents are Nathalie Lessard and Holden Wajcer.

His goal for X now is to make it even faster, and find a way to clarify the whole brain at one time.

Lessard-Wajcer said he is inspired by his late grandmother, Faiga Burman Wajcer. “She encouraged me to make the world a better place. She and my grandfather [Morris] didn’t have the opportunities I have; I feel I am fulfilling that for them.”

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