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Scientists scrambling to find a cure for COVID-19 may have some help from an unexpected source — 14-year-old Anika Chebrolu. The youngster from Frisco, Texas, was named the winner of the 3M Young Scientist Challenge in a virtual event held on October 12 - 13, 2020, for her groundbreaking research that could lead to a cure for the coronavirus.
Anika, who had been in eighth grade at the time of entry, had initially intended to research a compound that could bind the common flu virus protein and prevent the affliction from spreading. However, after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she and her 3M mentor — Dr. Mahfuza Ali — decided to focus their efforts on identifying a molecule that could encompass the so-called "spike protein" that coronavirus uses to invade human cells. Restraining the viral protein could potentially stop its entry into the cells and curb the spread of the infectious disease.
"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, changed directions to target the SARS-CoV-2 virus."
Her extensive research, which included using multiple computer programs to analyze almost 700 million compounds, led to the discovery of a promising molecule. If scientists are able to verify the accuracy of her findings, the molecule could help researchers develop a drug to contain COVID-19.
"This is a virus, and it has many proteins in it, and you need to find a size in that virus so that you can deactivate the virus so that it does not latch onto a human cell," Ali told Good Morning America. "What essentially she's doing is closing the door from the get-go of the coronavirus so that it cannot latch onto the human cell and then it cannot multiply and ... transfer from human to human."
Though thrilled at the accolades she has been receiving, Anika is not done fighting COVID-19. The young girl plans to use a portion of her $25,000 prize money to further develop her research with the help of virologists and drug development specialists. She also intends to donate some of her winnings to her nonprofit organization, AcademyAid, that "helps underrepresented students receive a well-rounded education by encouraging STEM and providing supplies to underserved schools in India."
Now in its 13th year, the 3M Young Scientist Challenge is an annual national competition that invites students in grades 5-8 to find a unique solution to an everyday problem. In addition to the prestigious title of “America’s Top Young Scientist,” the grand-prize winner receives an exclusive mentorship with a 3M scientist, a $25,000 cash prize, and a special destination trip. The second and third place winners each receive $1,000 in prize money and a special destination trip.
Resources: CNN.com, GMA.com, Livescience.com, Businesswire.com