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14-year-old awarded $25000 for discovery that could lead to potential COVID-19 treatment

The teen's winning invention used in-silico methodology to develop a lead molecule that can selectively bind to and prevent the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus from functioning.

14-year-old awarded $25000 for discovery that could lead to potential COVID-19 treatment
Cover Image Source: YouTube/Anika Chebrolu

As the race for a Coronavirus cure continues, a 14-year-old freshman from Frisco, Texas, is gaining national recognition for her contribution to the cause. Anika Chebrolu, a student at Independence High School, is being hailed the country's top young scientist after she won the 2020 3M Young Scientist Challenge — and a cash prize of $25,000 — for a discovery that could lead to a potential COVID-19 treatment. The teen's winning invention used in-silico methodology to develop a lead molecule that can selectively bind to and prevent the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus from functioning. "It's exciting. I'm still trying to process everything," Chebrolu told KTVT.



 

"I developed this molecule that can bind to a certain protein on the SARS COVID-2 virus," she explained. "This protein by binding to it it will stop the function of the protein... I started with a database of over 682 million compounds." Chebrolu, who is Indian American, was only in middle school when she entered the contest months ago and originally wasn't focused on finding a cure for COVID-19. Rather, her initial goal was to use in-silico methods to identify a lead compound that could bind to a protein of the influenza virus.



 

The teen revealed that she turned her focus to the current health crisis in light of the scope of the pandemic and the people who were suffering. "We just always have this constant fear who's going to be affected by the coronavirus," she said. Chebrolu, who describes herself as a typical teenager, told CNN: "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. 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, changed directions to target the SARS-CoV-2 virus."



 

Speaking of what sparked her interest in finding potential cures to viruses, Chebrolu explained that she was inspired after learning about the 1918 flu pandemic and the number of people who die every year in the United States despite annual vaccinations and anti-influenza drugs on the market. She also credits her grandfather for igniting her love for science. "My grandpa when I was younger he always used to push me toward science. He was actually a chemistry professor and he used to always tell me to learn the periodic table of elements," she said. "Over time I just grew to love it."



 

Dr. Cindy Moss, a judge for the 3M Young Scientist Challenge, said Chebrolu "has an inquisitive mind and used her curiosity to ask questions about a vaccine for Covid-19. 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." Meanwhile, the teen stated that while the title of top young scientist is an honor, her work isn't done yet. She now strives 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.



 

"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," she said. "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. How I develop this molecule further with the help of virologists and drug development specialists will determine the success of these efforts."



 

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