OTTAWA - It's not the long-sought cure for the common cold, but a 17-year-old Ottawa high school student won a national science competition Wednesday by developing a novel way of identifying and perhaps even fighting flu infections.

Maria Merziotis, a Grade 12 student at Hillcrest High School, won a $5,000 first prize and a chance to take her discovery to an international competition in San Diego next month.

A team of three Toronto Grade 10 students, Jonathan Schneider, Josh Alman and Norman Yau from the University of Toronto School, won the $4,000 second prize for identifying genes that help a plant thrive in salty soil.

They will also go to San Diego.

Vandana Rawal, a 15-year-old from Montreal's Centennial Regional High School, won third place and $3,000 for discovering a human gene variation that may help in dealing with bipolar disorder.

Health Canada is already looking at Merziotis's work, which offers a new way of identifying, and perhaps even fighting different influenza strains.

The flu virus attacks human cells by binding to a compound called sialic acid, or sialyllactose, on the cell surface. Merziotis synthesized a floating form of the acid, which dupes the virus with an alternative attachment site.

She said her process can help with both diagnosis and treatment.

"It can be used to detect what strain of influenza is responsible for a specific infection," she said. "It can differentiate between human and avian strains.

"It may also be possible to interfere with the infection process by administering the floating sialyllactose through injection, nasal spray or lungs with a pump. The flu virus would attach to the artificial receptor rather than the human cell."

The teens were competing in the Sanofi-Aventis BioTalent Challenge, a competition jointly sponsored two leading drug companies, the National Research Council and several other government agencies.

"The students in this competition represent some of the brightest young scientists in Canada," said Roman Szumski, vice-president of life sciences at the NRC.

The Toronto team's work with the plant gene offers insights into developing crops resistant to salty soils.

Rawal's work found a human gene variation which may explain why lithium is effective for some but not all bipolar patients.

The competition, now in its 15th year, involved 14 regional winners, both individuals and teams, from across the country.

Their projects ranged from an investigation of the role that mercury-polluted snow may play in northern community cancer rates, to methods of improving the survival of frozen stem cells and a study of herbal medicines.