Student Wins Thiel Fellowship to Pursue Life-Saving Cancer Research

Tuesday, June 4th, 2013 by

Riley Ennis had a passion for biomedical engineering long before he considered majoring in it at Dartmouth College. As a high school student, Ennis spent three years on a cancer vaccine that teaches the human body to recognize and remove tumors similarly to how the immune system attacks bacteria.

Riley Ennis

Riley Ennis

The work caught the attention of  giants in the cancer research industry, such as the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, the Sheikh Zayed Institute, the INOVA research foundation, and the former SVP of Pfizer. Ennis won 10,000 dollars to start the company Immudicon, which works to license the vaccine technology. Recently his work was rewarded with a Thiel Award Fellowship, which includes $100,000 dollars of funding and mentorship from the scientists and inventors at the Thiel Foundation for a period of two years. 

Riley Ennis’ sister’s congenital heart defect spurred his interest in biomedical engineering at a young age. His specific interest in cancer research can be traced back to a PBS Nova program on horseshoe crabs.
“There is a protein in the crab’s immune system that acts as a tag, binding to bacteria and telling the body to destroy whatever it is touching,” Ennis explained.

If the human immune system could be taught to similarly attack cancer as it does bacteria, patients could be saved the emotional and physical trauma of chemotherapy.  “I’m sick of the treatment killing the patient,” Ennis said to GE Focus Forward of chemotherapy and radiation.
Ennis wanted to pursue this technology, but it required funding and research. He started at a base level.  He loved his high school biology class then enrolled in a research program at the University of Pennsylvania where he learned about molecular techniques and how to conduct lab research. His sophomore year of High School Ennis used a protein from horse shoe crabs to train the immune system of an octopus to attack and destroy cancerous cells.  By senior year Ennis had secured funding and lab space to dig in further at Georgetown University and the Sheik Zayed Institute at the National Children’s Medical Center in Washington D.C. Here, he was able to secure patents for his technology and his start up, Immudicon, was born.  The company focuses on making this cancer technology a licensed reality in the market place.

At Darmouth, Ennis spent hours in the lab on top of school work. He says the college provided a great environment for creative research and an encouraging community. But, Ennis wanted to pursue his work full time and, this spring, got his chance. Ennis won a Thiel Foundation Fellowship for $100,000 that enrolled Ennis in a two-year program where he will work and research full time at Immudicon’s headquarters in the San Francisco Bay Area. The fellowship requires him to postpone his academic studies, in order to fulfill his dreams.

“The hardest part of the Thiel program is going to be leaving (Darmouth), but I see this as being an extension of my Dartmouth experience,” he told Dartmouth Now, Darmouth’s online news source. “I have this great network and this great opportunity to pursue a passion.”



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