Teen Anika Chebrolu’s Discovery Will Limit Spike Protein Of The SARS-Cov-2 Virus

The coronavirus has killed more than 1.1 million people globally since China reported its first case to the World Health Organization (WHO) in December 2019. The United States has more than 220,000 deaths, according to data from the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering.

Anika, an Indian American Teenager, submitted her project when she was in 8th grade — but it wasn’t always going to be focused on finding a cure for 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.

“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.”

3M, in partnership with Discovery Education, Oct. 14 announced that Indian American student Anika Chebrolu won the 2020 Young Scientist Challenge competition. The 13th annual contest called for students in grades 5-to-8 to submit a video demonstrating an innovation that could provide a solution to an everyday problem, according to a news release.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus is the cause of hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide and was declared a worldwide pandemic and public health emergency earlier this year. With the virus continuing to spread far and wide, there is an urgent need to find an effective anti-coronavirus drug.

In her study, Chebrolu discovered a molecule that can selectively bind to the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2. Binding and inhibiting this viral protein would potentially stop the virus entry into the cell, creating a viable drug target. In her research, Chebrolu 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 could be a potential drug for the effective treatment of COVID-19, the release notes. For the first time in the history of the competition, the 3M Young Scientist Challenge showcased the top 10 finalist projects and announced this year’s winner in a virtual event, held Oct. 12-13.

Anika Chebrolu’s award 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. “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,” Anika told CNN.

When it comes to iconic sneakers, heck, when it comes to the entire history of footwear, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a more beloved or influential shoe than the Superstar. Anika 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 United States despite annual vaccinations and anti-influenza drugs on the market.

“Anika has an inquisitive mind and used her curiosity to ask questions about a vaccine for Covid-19,” Dr. Cindy Moss, a judge for the 3M Young Scientist Challenge, 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.”

Anika, who performs Bharatanatyam, an ancient Indian dance, 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.

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

An eighth-grader at Nelson Middle School, Chebrolu at the time of entry, competed against nine other finalists in an interactive virtual competition. Each finalist was evaluated on a series of challenges and the presentation of their completed innovation. These young inventors – aged 12-14 – won the top ten spots in this year’s challenge through their innovative thinking, scientific acumen, and display of exceptional communication skills, the release added.

“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. Our heartfelt congratulations go to this year’s winner, Anika Chebrolu, and our many thanks to all our 3M Young Scientist Challenge finalists,” Rutherford added.

Over the past few months, each 3M Young Scientist Challenge finalist worked with a 3M scientist who played the role of mentor and worked one-on-one with each finalist to transform their idea from concept to physical prototype. Chebrolu was paired with Dr. Mahfuza Ali, a 3M corporate scientist in the materials resource division and a recent Carlton Society inductee.

As part of the program, challenge finalists received a variety of prizes from 3M and Discovery Education. The grand prize winner received a $25,000 cash prize, the prestigious title of “America’s Top Young Scientist,” and a special destination trip. The second and third place winners each received a $1,000 prize and a special destination trip.

In third place, Laasya Acharya, a seventh-grader at Mason Middle School in Mason City School District from Mason, Ohio. The Indian American student utilized a neural network to detect crop diseases through image analysis. The fourth through tenth place winners each receive a $1,000 prize and a $500 excitations gift card.

Among them were Ekansh Mittal from Beaverton, Ore., an eighth-grader at Meadow Park Middle School in the Beaverton School District; Harsha Pillarisetti from San Ramon, Calif., an eighth-grader at Windemere Ranch Middle School in the San Ramon Valley Unified School District; Samhita Pokkunuri from Old Bridge, N.J., a seventh-grader at Carl Sandburg Middle School in the Old Bridge Township Public School District; and Samvrit Rao from Ashburn, Va., a seventh-grader at Stone Hill Middle School in the Loudoun County Public School District.

“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.” The teen 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 United States despite annual vaccinations and anti-influenza drugs on the market. Anika said winning the prize and title of Top Young Scientist is an honor, but her work isn’t done.

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