A 14-year-old Indian-American girl has won a $25,000 young scientist challenge for a discovery that could provide a potential treatment for COVID-19. Anika Chebrolu, an eighth grader from Frisco in Texas, won the 3M Young Scientist Challenge, regarded as the US' premier middle school science competition, for her work using in-silico methodology for drug discovery to find a molecule that can selectively bind to the Spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 virus in an attempt to find a cure for the coronavirus pandemic, according to the 3M Challenge website. 3M is an American manufacturing company based in Minnesota.
Chebrolu decided to take part in the Young Scientist Challenge after she battled a severe influenza infection last year. She wanted to find a cure for influenza. However, that all changed after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the website said.
"I was drawn towards finding effective cures for influenza disease after a severe bout of the infection last year," Chebrolu said, adding, "I would like to learn more from 3M scientists to pursue my drug development and with their help, would like to conduct in-vitro and in-vivo testing of my lead drug candidate."
Chebrolu was one of the 10 finalists in this year's 3M Young Scientist Challenge. In addition to the prize money, she was also awarded an exclusive 3M Mentorship. As a finalist, she worked with 3M Corporate Scientist Dr Mahfuza Ali, who mentored Chebrolu one-on-one throughout the summer. Together, they transformed her idea from concept to reality. Dr Ali helped Chebrolu perfect her innovation through the scientific method, and she presented her project to a judging panel of scientists and leaders. Each finalist was evaluated on a series of challenges and the presentation of their completed innovation.
"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. Science is the basis of life and the entire universe and we have a long way to go understand it fully," said Chebrolu, who wants to become a medical researcher and professor.
Talking to CNN, Chebrolu said, "The last two days, I saw that there is a lot of media hype about my project since it involves the SARS-CoV-2 virus and it reflects our collective hopes to end this pandemic as I, like everyone else, wish that we go back to our normal lives soon."
Chebrolu said 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 US despite annual vaccinations and anti-influenza drugs on the market.
"Chebrolu has an inquisitive mind and used her curiosity to ask questions about a vaccine for COVID-19," Dr Cindy Moss, a judge for the competition, told CNN. "Her work was comprehensive and examined numerous databases. She also developed an understanding of the innovation process and is a masterful communicator. Her willingness to use her time and talent to help make the world a better place gives us all hope," Moss said.
Chebrolu said that winning the prize and title of top young scientist is an honour, 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.
"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," she told CNN. "How I develop this molecule further with the help of virologists and drug development specialists will determine the success of these efforts," she said.
Denise Rutherford, senior vice president of Corporate Affairs at 3M in his congratulatory message said that amidst the challenges of a global pandemic, quality STEM education for all has become an even more urgent need.