A 14-year-old girl from Texas has discovered a molecule that can selectively bind to the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2. Eighth grader Anika Chebrolu has been named the winner of the 2020 3M Young Scientist Challenge—America’s premier middle school science competition. She received a $25,000 gift for her award-winning work and a one-of-a-kind 2 day/1-night destination trip.
The Young Scientist Challenge is a youth science and engineering competition administered by Discovery Education and 3M for middle school students in the United States. Students apply by creating a 1-2 minute video detailing their idea for a new invention intended to solve an everyday problem. Ten finalists are chosen annually to work alongside a 3M scientist during a summer mentorship and receive a trip to the 3M Innovation Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, to compete for $25,000 and the title of America’s Top Young Scientist.
Anika’s winning invention uses in-silico methodology to discover a lead molecule that can selectively bind to the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Binding and inhibiting this viral protein would potentially stop the virus entry into the cell, creating a viable drug target. As part of her research, Anika screened millions of small molecules for drug-likeness properties, ADMET properties, and binding affinities against the spike protein using numerous software tools. The one molecule with the best pharmacological and biological activity towards the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus was chosen as the lead molecule that can be a potential drug for the effective treatment of COVID-19.
Initially, her goal was to use in-silico methods to identify a lead compound that could bind to a protein of the influenza virus. She was inspired to find potential cures to viruses after learning about the 1918 flu pandemic and finding out how many people die every year in the United States despite annual vaccinations and anti-influenza drugs on the market.
“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,” Anika said. “Because of the immense severity of the Covid-19 pandemic and the drastic impact it had made on the world in such a short time, I, with the help of my mentor, Dr. Mahfuza Ali, changed directions to target the SARS-CoV-2 virus.”
Anika said winning the prize and title of top young scientist is an honor, but her work isn’t done. Her next goal, she says, is to work alongside scientists and researchers who are fighting to “control the morbidity and mortality” of the pandemic by developing her findings into an actual cure for the virus. Chebrolu also received the “Improving Lives Award,” according to a release from Frisco ISD.
“I am extremely humbled at being selected America’s Top Young Scientist as all of the finalists had amazing projects and were extremely well-rounded individuals,” Anika said in the Frisco release. “Science is the basis of life and the entire universe and we have a long way to go to understand it fully.” While she hopes to be a medical researcher and professor in the future, she is already doing grown-up work and inspiring a generation to reach for the stars.