Anika Chebrolu, 14, won the award for best young scientist in the USA. – Photo: Personal collection via BBC
The scientific discovery earned the young woman the title of “best young scientist in the United States” in the Young Scientist Challenge 2020 competition, which earned her a prize of US $ 25 thousand (about R $ 142 thousand) granted by the multinational 3M.
The nationally prestigious annual event is recommended by several universities for students aged 10 to 14 (and potential scientists) to present a short video explaining a solution to an everyday problem.
What exactly is the discovery of young Anika Chebrolu about? And how did she do that?
Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes covid-19 disease, has a kind of crown around it. That’s where the name coronavirus comes from.
In this crown there is a thorn-shaped protein, the protein S, which binds to the receptors in our cells to infect them.
For this reason, many laboratories working on a vaccine against covid-19 chose to attack this protein in order to prevent the virus from penetrating our cells.
Anika Chebrolu’s research was also based on this key protein in the virus.
“I discovered a molecule that can join protein S of the virus and potentially change its shape and function,” explains the young woman in an interview with BBC News Mundo (BBC Spanish service).
She did this by examining millions of small molecules for properties such as an absorption, distribution, metabolism and excretion (ADME) drug.
After this analysis, Chebrolu selected the molecule with the best pharmacological and biological activity against the S protein of the Sars-CoV-2 virus, which can be transformed into a potential drug for an effective treatment against the disease.
Chebrolu started his research at the Nelson school in Frisco, when there was still no news about the new coronavirus pandemic.
“A few years ago, I investigated the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 for a school project and was fascinated by viruses and drug discovery,” she said.
In doing his research, he discovered the methodology in silico (in or through computer simulation).
“I was surprised that we could use computational methods to identify and develop potential drug-like molecules to fight disease.”
She says she was using the same method as last year to identify an important compound that could bind to the influenza virus hemagglutinin protein when the covid-19 pandemic emerged.
“After researching pandemics, viruses and drugs for so long, it was crazy to think that we were really experiencing a pandemic!”
Due to the severity of the pandemic and the strong impact it had on the world in less than a year, Chebrolu describes that, with the help of his mentor Mahfuza Ali, a 3M scientist, she changed the direction of her initial project and turned to protein S of the Sars-CoV-2 virus.
As of October 26, covid-19 has taken the lives of more than 1.1 million people worldwide since the first cases began to be reported in December 2019 in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
The United States is the country with the most deaths, with more than 225,000, according to data from the American university Johns Hopkins.
Anika Chebrolu used a computer simulator in her research – Photo: Personal collection via BBC
In the scientific field, Chebrolu’s findings have been celebrated, but scientists say that more studies are still needed to see if this molecule is really effective for a cure against covid-19.
“I think it’s wonderful that Anika Chebrolu did this analysis, and her work is obviously impressive and sophisticated for her level of education. Without a doubt, she has the potential to be an exceptional scientist,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University in New York. .
“However, it is important to note that, although these strategies are good for identifying compounds with therapeutic potential, there is no experimental data to support that the identified molecule really affects viral entry or replication, or that it binds to protein S under real conditions. “, says the specialist to BBC News Mundo.
“Laboratory studies are needed to better understand the potential of this molecule as antiviral therapy”, adds Rasmussen.
For experts consulted by the report, further laboratory tests can determine whether this molecule can bind effectively to the virus’ S protein.
If this is proven with in vitro analyzes, usually on isolated tissues, organs or cells, and later in vivo, which means tests on living organisms, this molecule could prevent the first stage of virus infection in an organism.
Chebrolu says he has concrete plans to invest the money he won as a top young US scientist.
“I plan to use the $ 25,000 to continue my research and fund my nonprofit organization, AcademyAid, which provides material and equipment to children who need help to pursue the careers they want.”
She also plans to keep part of the prize to pay for her studies at the university.
Asked what she would say, from her experience, to other young people who may be interested in science, she recommended not to stop questioning.
“Always remember to keep asking and be confident in yourself. Make sure you take advantage of any opportunity with your best skills, as you never know where to stop.”
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