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14-Year-Old Girl Wins $25,000 for Work on Possible COVID Cure

14-Year-Old Girl Wins $25,000 for Work on Possible COVID Cure
Anika Chebrolu of Frisco, Texas has been named "America's Top Young Scientist" for identifying a molecule that can selectively bind to the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Anika Chebrolu / YouTube

Scientists at top universities searching for a coronavirus cure have just gotten help from an unexpected source: a 14-year-old from Texas.

Anika Chebrolu of Frisco, Texas has been named "America's Top Young Scientist" for identifying a molecule that can selectively bind to the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, in hopes of developing a cure for the disease that has so far infected more than 40 million people and claimed more than one million lives.

"My effort to find a lead compound to bind to the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus this summer may appear to be a drop in the ocean, but still adds to all these efforts," Chebrolu told CNN.

To identify the binding molecule, Chebrolu used in-silico methodology for drug discovery. Binding the virus's spike protein is important because inhibiting this protein can potentially stop the virus from entering a healthy cell, Business Wire explained. Chebrolu used software to screen millions of potential molecules for drug-likeness and ADMET properties, as well as their ability to bind to the spike protein. The molecule with the most binding ability was then chosen as a potential drug candidate.

Chebrolu did all this work as part of the 3M Young Scientist Challenge, a nationwide science competition for fifth to eighth grade students, now in its 13th year. Students submit a one to two minute video explaining their solution to an everyday problem. Based on these videos, ten finalists are then selected and given the chance to develop their project with a 3M scientist mentor. Chebrolu's mentor was Dr. Mahfuza Ali, a 3M corporate scientist in the materials resource division.

This year for the first time, the top ten finalists competed virtually for the winning spot, which comes with $25,000, a special trip and the honor of being named "America's Top Young Scientist."

"Amidst the challenges of a global pandemic, quality STEM education for all has become an even more urgent need, and 3M's commitment to fostering the next generation of science leaders has never been more determined," 3M senior vice president of corporate affairs Denise Rutherford told Business Wire. "In spite of challenges, like adjusting to new norms of distance learning and participating in virtual events, this year's 3M Young Scientist Challenge finalists have smashed through barriers with grit, creativity, innovative thinking, and excitement – all in the name of applying science to improve lives. 3M is inspired by these young innovators and we celebrate each one of them. Our heartfelt congratulations go to this year's winner, Anika Chebrolu, and our many thanks to all our 3M Young Scientist Challenge finalists."

Chebrolu did not originally intend to complete a project about the coronavirus, according to CNN. Her initial submission video was about finding a molecule that could bind a protein in the influenza virus.

"I have always been amazed by science experiments since my childhood and I was drawn towards finding effective cures for Influenza disease after a severe bout of the infection last year," she told 3M.

However, when COVID-19 began to spread, Chebrolu worked with her mentor to switch gears.

"After spending so much time researching about pandemics, viruses and drug discovery, it was crazy to think that I was actually living through something like this," Chebrolu told CNN.

Chebrolu's work isn't done now that she has won the prize. She told 3M that she hopes to be a medical researcher and professor in the next 15 years, and she is getting an early start. She now wants to work with other scientists to turn her project into an actual treatment for COVID-19.

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