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Young biochemist started cancer research at sixteen

Marek Feith has attended laboratories at Masaryk University already as a second-year student at a secondary school.

While children who have just started elementary school often have a very clear idea about their future professions, the opposite is usually true for those who just have turned fifteen and are in secondary school. However, Marek Feith already knew that he wanted to be a biochemist. Even though he has just completed his first semester at the MU Faculty of Science, he has already scored his first international research achievements.

Last spring, when he was still in secondary school, he was awarded first place in the international Beijing Youth Science Creation Competition. He qualified for the competition as a successful participant in the Amavet professional competition for secondary school students. His study at Michal Masařík’s Lab at the MU Faculty of Medicine focused on the biochemistry of head and neck cancer.

“I’ve always enjoyed biology and chemistry and almost right from the start of secondary school, I focused on being accepted to university without entrance exams,” says Marek. “I knew I did not want to study pure chemistry, but combine it with biology.”

As a second-year student at a secondary school specialized in chemistry, he was already frequenting the laboratories of Masaryk University, thanks to his biochemistry teacher. He would be at the labs two or three times a week. “It was very time-demanding, but I never found it limiting. I still managed to attend training sessions every day and I think I even had reasonable grades at school,” he says – but then smiles as he adds that he sometimes slept so little that he was late for school.

Determining the aggressiveness of cancer
When he first came to the lab, he was offered several topics to choose from. He chose cancers of the head. “They are less understood than cancers of the prostate, for example, which are also studied at the lab. In secondary school, I already started looking for the ‘markers’ or molecules that could help determine the scale and aggressiveness of the tumour or whether there is any metastasis,” says Marek about his research, which has now entered its fourth year.

Molecules specific to a given tumour could help diagnose the cancer in its early stages and could also help secure individualized therapy for the patient.

Unfortunately, as Marek explains, “Such markers are difficult to establish, because they can also be created by the body for a number of other reasons, completely unrelated to cancer. There are currently several dozen molecules that could be markers for these types of cancer, and we are testing them.”

This research also won Marek first place in the competition in Beijing. He spent a week there last spring and it was an unforgettable experience for him. “The differences between the cities and the countryside are quite stark in China. Even though we just passed through the villages, the poverty was obvious. Beijing, on the other hand, is a modern city – despite the dirt, catastrophic transport situation and the fact that pedestrians find it hard to cross the street.”

Even though Marek was almost hit by a car twice, he has only good memories of the competition. “I met people from all over the world, and I am still in touch with the participants from Australia,” he says. Marek won in the medical and health sciences category in a competition of about 70 participating projects.

Winning first place also got Marek to the Talented Students programme run by the South Moravian Centre for International Mobility. For a certain period of time, he will receive thirty thousand crowns every year for his personal development. However, he also needs to meet the requirements of the programme, including good grades.

Marek hopes he will be able to continue meeting these requirements, but he admits that he did not expect university to be so very demanding. “I did not realize I would have to study this hard. I had to limit my training sessions, but that’s as it should be,” says Marek, adding that his main struggle last semester was with mathematics.

Despite his packed schedule, he still plays floorball with the Brno Bulldogs team, rides his bike and plays tennis. As he says, “I try to be active every day and this is a habit I want to keep.”