If a 14-year-old started telling you about immunotherapy to treat cancer, or had developed a hypothesis that suggested genetically modifying a patient’s cells so that those new cells could be reintroduced into the patient’s system to fight his cancer, what would you think? Yet that’s just what Gabriel, now 19, did—he’s been part of a research project at the CHU Sainte-Justine for the past 5 years.

Gabriel’s story starts in 2014. He had just won the grand prize at the Quebec-wide science fair for his theoretical project to fight cancer. 

I got an email from a teenager, a young man writing to me about immunotherapy. I figured, ‘This must be a joke, he must have heard about this somewhere or he’s talking about someone else’s idea’. It piqued my curiosity, that’s for sure.

Dr. Elie Haddad

Head, Research Axis, Immune Disorders and Cancers
CHU Sainte-Justine

Of all the researchers Gabriel tried to contact, only Dr. Haddad replied. “Five years ago, cancer immunotherapy was a confidential topic and a little-known approach. I knew that the idea Gabriel was proposing wouldn’t work in practice, because I had studied it myself. But how could someone his age know so much? I wanted to meet him,” says Dr. Haddad. 

First, they spoke on the phone—a conversation that would be the start of a major collaboration. 

I said to him, ‘This doesn’t work from a technical standpoint, we can’t put your hypothesis into practice.’ And do you know what he said in response? He put forth another hypothesis. That’s when I knew—that here was a young man who knew what he was talking about.

Dr. Elie Haddad

Invited to a meeting at the laboratory in 2014, Gabriel “officially” joined Dr. Haddad’s team, first as an observer and then, when he was 18 and studying at CEGEP, on an internship. It was a first for Sainte-Justine. 

“People asked me why I was doing all this for such a young student. Because he’s brilliant!” is how Gabriel’s supervisor replies. 

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You know, when you work at Sainte-Justine, you want to make dreams a reality. We want to care for more children, heal them better, contribute to their well-being. But we need to do the same for our students. Giving them wings helps them reach new heights for the health of our patients.

Dr. Elie Haddad

Today’s youth are tomorrow’s leaders 

At Sainte-Justine, an intern in the Research Centre requires an investment of time, mentorship, teaching. The selected students are usually more advanced than Gabriel in terms of their academic career; most are studying at the undergraduate or graduate level. But, “when you’re sure about something, you need to be persistent!” says Dr. Haddad. “By working with Gabriel, one of my doctoral students was able to advance his own project,” he adds. 

Since joining Dr. Haddad’s laboratory, Gabriel has been helping with the creation of a specific promoter which could make it possible to better treat cancer patients. The goal is to insert a gene into a stem cell and then ensure that this gene is expressed only in certain daughter cells, in order to destroy the cancerous cells.

Earlier this year Gabriel was awarded the highest distinction at the Hydro-Québec Super Science Fair for his project titled “An Immune Response to All”, which studies certain properties of the immune system that may be helpful in fighting cancer. He was also named La Presse Personality of the Week this past May. 

This fall, Gabriel begins medical school—officially! He intends to pursue his research activities with Dr. Haddad alongside his studies. And when he’s asked if has thought about one day practicing medicine at Sainte-Justine, he replies with a laugh that he’s too young to think about that just yet! For our part, we certainly hope he does! 

We wish you the best of luck at school, Gabriel!