Scientists around the world have been racing to find ways to combat COVID-19. This includes young scientists like 14-year-old Anika Chebrolu. This student from Frisco, Texas was just named America's Top Young Scientist in the 3M Young Scientist Challenge. For her work in finding a molecule that could lead to a cure for the coronavirus, she won $25,000.
Anika, who was in eighth grade when she entered the competition, spent time analyzing millions of molecules to find one that could work as a drug candidate to combat COVID-19. Using in-silico methodology for drug discovery, she was able to pinpoint a molecule that can selectively bind to the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2, which is responsible for the coronavirus. Spike proteins sit on the surface of the virus and help it penetrate into our cells. Without this protein, COVID-19 wouldn't be able to cause infection.
By binding and inhibiting the spike protein, the molecule Anika found could potentially stop the virus from entering cells, which would create a viable drug target. Anika worked closely with 3M scientist Dr. Mahfuza Ali, who was her mentor throughout the process. Each of the 10 finalists was paired with a mentor, who worked with them over the past few months to bring their projects to life.
All of the finalists range in age from 12 to 14 and were evaluated based on a series of challenges and the presentation of their completed innovation. “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,” said Denise Rutherford, Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs at 3M. “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.”
So what are the next steps for Anika? The budding medical researcher is hoping to learn more from 3M scientists and to get their help in developing the drug. Interestingly, her inspiration for the project came after her own bout with the flu last year. This sparked her curiosity about the way that these diseases work. If all goes well, she'd like to conduct in-vitro and in-vivo testing of her lead drug candidate.
Who knows? We might just be hearing more from Anika and with her help, we may be able to battle back against the coronavirus.