What if we reprogrammed cancer cells to turn into germ cells? Or create target vaccines that prepare the body to fight against potential cancers? Or look at how cancer cells repair their own DNA, and use that against them?

All these ideas were floated by Johns Hopkins medical and graduate students in the competition for the first-ever John G. Rangos Medal of Honor in Creative Thinking, an award given to the early-stage student-scientist (read:  undergrad, graduate or medical student, residents, and fellows) who comes up with the best and most creative way to combat cancer.

Forty-four students entered proposals, and five finalists got to present their ideas in front of a panel of faculty judges. The high-level of competition (and, presumably, stress) led Hopkins doc and cancer researcher Donald Coffey to call it the “Olympics” of research competitions at Hopkins.

This year’s winner, Andrew Sharabi, came away with $20,000 for coming up with an idea about testicular cancer:

…metastatic testicular cancer is largely curable in most patients because immune cells zero in on testicular cancer cells with far more accuracy than they do in other cancers. He proposes that testicular cells are essentially recognized as foreign to the immune system because the testes are protected by the so-called blood-testis barrier, much like the blood-brain barrier. Testicular cancer cells can spread to the rest of the body and may initially go undetected by immune system cells. However, he says he believes that chemotherapy given to patients causes testicular cancer cells to die, releasing many targets for the immune cells. At that time, the immune system kicks into high gear, generating large numbers of circulating immune cells, whose task is to seek the testicular cancer cells and destroy them. He also believes that after chemotherapy, testicular cancer cells essentially may be recognized as foreign by the immune cells because the blood-testis barrier had, until then, kept testicular cells hidden from the immune system.

He proposes further investigations of how the immune system responds to testicular cancer cells to identify specific immune system targets common to testicular cancer as well as other types of cancer. The research could lead to the development of vaccines that prime the body to defend against and fight cancers.

Read about the other proposals at the Hopkins Gazette.