Emerging strains of the flu virus are very close to becoming pandemic, bugs capable of killing millions of people. This stark realization prompted a young researcher named Eric Chen to accelerate the development of new antiviral drugs that could save lives. For his efforts he took top prize at the Google Science Fair Monday — he's just 17 years old.
"I felt like this was a really urgent problem and I thought, well, why can't I use this new computational power at our fingertips in order to speed up this process and find new anti-flu medicine," Google Science Fair grand prize winner Eric Chen of San Diego, Calif., told NBC News.
Other winners in the Google Science Fair include Viney Kumar, a 14-year-old from Australia who invented a new alert system with Internet and smartphone tools that gives drivers more than a minute of advanced warning to get out of the way of an approaching emergency vehicle such as an ambulance.
Ann Makosinski, a 15-year-old from Canada, was awarded for flashlight that is powered by the heat of a human hand. No batteries are required. Elif Bilgin, a 16-year-old from Turkey, took the voter's choice award for a project that uses banana peels to make bioplastics for cosmetic prosthesis and insulation of cables.
The prizes were handed out in a gala on Monday at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. The winners were selected from thousands of entries from young scientists living in more than 120 countries.
Chen, the grand prize winner, has been working for several years with biologists at the University of California, San Diego, and leveraged his access to the university to gain time on its supercomputer where he was able to accelerate the drug discovery process.
To do so, he first created 3-D models and simulations of the protein influenza endonuclease, which is essential for viral propagation and thus the target of new drugs. "It is kind of difficult talking about a target when you have no idea what it looks like," he explained.
From there, he used the computer to screen half a million chemical compounds to determine which ones shared characteristics of known inhibitors to endonuclease. This resulted in a ranked list of 237 that showed promise as new drug candidates.
"I took these top 237 and actually biologically tested them for activity and found out which ones of these are actually effective in stopping the flu," Chen said.
Going forward, he aims to further develop the promising compounds for more drug-like characteristics, such as high potency but low toxicity. "You don't want your drug killing people rather than the flu," he noted.
Eventually, these modified compounds may be ready for pre-clinical and clinical drug trials, a task the high-school student aims to handoff to a drug development company. Chen is currently applying to colleges and hopes to start at a "top university" next fall.
First, however, he looks forward to a trip to the Galapagos Islands with the National Geographic Society, which he was awarded on Monday. "I think it will be amazing," he said. "I actually want to ride a giant tortoise."
John Roach is a contributing writer for NBC News. To learn more about him, visit his website.