David Thompson secondary student Yvonne Hao’s mother has suffered from a painful condition of the nerves called trigeminal neuralgia for years. The condition causes a stabbing or electric shock-like pain in parts of the face.
It creates so much discomfort it can be difficult to function. Treatments have shown mixed success. Hao’s mother worries that one of the treatments—surgery, which involves cutting through the cranium—carries too much risk. Instead, she takes painkillers to deal with the medical problem.
It’s not surprising then that when Hao, 14, and two classmates—Narae Kim and Jairah Alindogan—decided to enter the Toshiba ExploraVision science and technology competition, which asked them to think about technology and how it might look 20 years from now, they focused on a better treatment for trigeminal neuralgia. “Usually I do science fairs where you have to make something, but as soon as ExploraVision said something in the future, I thought, well, this means I can go far and try to help my mom,” said Hao, a Grade 9 student.
The competition is for kindergarten to Grade 12 students and is open to public, private or home-schooled students in the United States and Canada. Past winners have envisioned technologies ranging from a self-cleaning toilet to a new method of treating diabetes.
The David Thompson team recently learned they won top prize in their region for their 11-page paper on a treatment for trigeminal neuralgia. The win comes with a $10,000 savings bond for each student and a trip to Washington, D.C.
The teenagers worked on the paper last fall. “We had to research. We had a lot of things that we were thinking of, but it wouldn’t really work, so we researched a lot about medical stuff. I talked to people who were in the medical field and researched about the history of the disease,” Hao said, adding studying about the subject made her realize how difficult the condition was for her mother.
For the competition, the threesome came up with a thermoresponsive hydrogel injection, an effective and minimally invasive operation that delivers medication directly to the painful area. “This starts out as a liquid that flows throughout the affected area and becomes a gel, which coats the nerve endings and reduces or eliminates the pain,” explained David Thompson principal Iona Whishaw in an email to the Courier.
The win shocked Hao.
“When [we] got the regional win I was really surprised and shaking, but when they told us we won the nationals, I was too shocked to really have much of a reaction,” she said.
David Thompson teacher Danny Borges was thrilled by the news. “I’ve done this project before with students, and students tend to think in terms of technology and remote controls and TVs. These students took it and actually used it for something that would actually benefit one of their mothers. I thought it was pretty amazing,” he said.
Whishaw said it reflects well on the East Side school. “This is a big deal… it was a beautifully researched paper and I wasn’t at all surprised by the regional win and I have to say I wasn’t surprised they won the whole thing. This is a pretty big international deal and they were only two winners in Canada.”
Hao believes the treatment is realistic in the future. “This one actually seems like it can be done very soon because the technologies are all there—maybe just some minor tweaks in putting it together,” she said, adding her mother is also optimistic. “She was really proud and I think she just thinks maybe one day we can actually do this.”