A personal desire to defeat Alzheimer's

Posted: May 27, 2007

There are more than 5 million Americans living with Alzheimer's disease. Years from now that number could be smaller, thanks to the work of a high-achieving senior at Conestoga High School.

Felix Zhang, 17, of Berwyn, was selected by USA Today as one of 20 members of its All-USA High School Academic Team.

Zhang has devoted a large chunk of his free time over the last year and a half to interning at Thomas Jefferson Hospital, assisting in research on Alzheimer's disease. He won an award from the American Academy of Neurology for his research and presented his findings at its awards luncheon in Boston on May 2.

Zhang will attend Harvard University in the fall and plans to study international affairs and pre-medicine. To find the reasons behind his drive to succeed, you need to look across the globe, where he went years ago to meet his great-grandmother in China.

"When I was little she was the subject of my bedtime stories," said Zhang, a first-generation American. "She was a heroine doing World War II, she hid out during the Japanese invasion, and during the Cultural Revolution she protected the family. This is how I learned about Chinese history," he said.

"When I finally was going to meet her I was really excited, but by that time she was already in the later stages of Alzheimer's. She couldn't remember how to tie her shoes or eat correctly. It was shocking to me to see how someone could go from the subject of these stories to someone who can't function as a human being."

Zhang's great-grandmother died five years ago, and her battle with Alzheimer's drove him to spend the better part of the summer of 2005 cold-calling and e-mailing every research institute in the area.

"Some called me and offered me lab-rat status, like cleaning beakers. I felt that wasn't contributing enough," he said. Finally, Dr. Sam Gandy, director of the Farber Institute for Neurosciences at Thomas Jefferson University, e-mailed him back.

The would-be researcher had boned up on medical journals in the meantime, and a few articles on estrogen studies piqued his interest. Studies in the 1990s had shown that women undergoing hormone-replacement therapy had a lower risk of Alzheimer's, Zhang said, but more recent research had shown the therapy led to higher instances of a host of other problems, including breast cancer.

Zhang focused on more recently developed estrogen compounds, such as Evista, which is marketed to fight osteoporosis.

His research, done during his free time at the hospital during his junior year and up to September, showed a decrease in Alzheimer's-causing plaque on mice neurocells treated with the compounds, with no cancer-causing side effects.

Zhang is also an award-winning pianist who organized a yearly benefit at Conestoga for a Chinese orphanage. He and two friends also drafted a proposal calling for a presidential question period in Congress, based on a similar practice in British Parliament in which members question the prime minister.

They recently submitted their proposal to the offices of U.S. Sens. Arlen Specter and Bob Casey and U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach and met with representatives of the congressmen.

"I don't think it will get anywhere, but we just wanted to see where it would go," he said of the idea.

As for Zhang, his future is much brighter.

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