When most of us were 17, we dreamed of owning our own car and the freedom that would come with college admission. But Eric Chen dreams of much more. This California high-school senior wants to change the world, and if his collection of first place prizes from some of the most prestigious science fairs in the nation is any indication, he’s already well on his way. Chen’s groundbreaking project uses computer modeling to zero in on chemical compounds that could be effective at fighting the dreaded flu. The project took top honors at the Google Science Fair, the Siemens Science Fair, and most recently, the Intel Science Talent Search competition, and has already led to the discovery of some promising flu-fighting drugs.

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According to the project description from the Google Science Fair website, Chen’s work was inspired by the grave threat posed by new highly lethal influenza viruses such as H5N1 and H7N9.

“My project is to discover novel influenza endonuclease inhibitors as leads for a new type of anti-flu medicine, effective against all influenza viruses including pandemic strains,” Chen writes. “By combining computer modeling and biological studies, I identified a number of novel, potent endonuclease inhibitors. I also performed comprehensive structural analysis, laying ground work for further design and optimization of the anti-flu drug candidates.”

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In layperson terms this means Chen’s project combines supercomputer modeling with biological testing in order to speed up the discovery of new flu drugs. “Chen’s computer model selects for chemical compounds that have certain features considered desirable in flu drugs, whittling down half a million compounds to the top 237 most promising ones. His focus is on drugs that inhibit a key enzyme–endonuclease–in flu virus propagation,” writes Ariel Schwartz for Fast Co. Exist.

“I identified a number of new, potent and structurally diverse endonuclease inhibitors with great potential to be developed into new anti-influenza drugs. The structural study also provided valuable information for designing even more potent inhibitors. Therefore, these findings will help combat influenza and save lives. A patent has been filed on my discovery,” Chen writes.

Despite the incredible honor (and prize money) heaped upon him for his project, Chen remains humble and optimistic. He says he’ll use the money to pay for college (he’s deciding between Harvard and Stanford), although he still hasn’t decided on a major.

Via Fast Co. Exist

Images via Hayne Palmour IV/UT San Diego and Google Science Fair

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