Lexington 16-year-old student wins $75,000 for what could be a medical breakthrough

A 16-year-old junior from Lexington’s Paul Laurence Dunbar High School on Friday won $75,000 and worldwide recognition for her improvement on an implantable medical device that could work inside the body to help diagnose and treat health problems.

Grace Sun took home the $75,000 top award from the 2024 Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair at the world’s largest pre-college science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) competition, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, Inc. and Society for Science said in a Friday news release.

The magazine Science News Explores reported Grace “improved a type of electronic device that could work inside the body to help diagnose and treat health problems.”

“Her innovation affects a type of transistor. That’s a device that amplifies electrical signals,” the magazine said.

Grace received the $75,000 George D. Yancopoulos Innovator Award for her research on building a better organic electrochemical transistor that could eventually be used to develop new electronic devices that could help detect and treat such serious illnesses as diabetes, epilepsy and organ failure.

“To overcome the problems that have previously prevented such devices from working effectively inside the body, Grace developed a new way of chemically treating their organic components, which greatly improved their laboratory performance,” according to the news release.

Nearly 2,000 high-school finalists from around the world competed for the prizes in Los Angeles last week. Grace also won first place in the materials science division, adding another $5,000 to the $75,000.

The type of transistor Grace worked with can detect signals that naturally occur in the body — then amplify them.

She said an implanted version could one day help regulate heartbeat or monitor blood-sugar levels, Science News Explores reported.

.Bioelectronic devices have been under development for years but aren’t for sale yet because of their current performance issues, she said. They’ve proven unstable in the body and slow to move electrical signals.

Grace added a salt to the polymer that makes up the device, the magazine reported.

“This changes the molecular structure and properties of the polymer. And that greatly improved the device’s performance,” the Science News Explores magazine said.

“Because these [electrical devices] are so cost-effective, and versatile,” Grace was quoted as saying in the magazine, “I hope to provide more accurate, safer, as well as cheaper medical diagnostics and treatment for a variety of diseases.”