'Still in shock': Indian-American teen on being named 'America’s Top Young Scientist'

Written By: Ayushi Agarwal WION
New Delhi, Delhi, India Published: Oct 26, 2020, 11:55 PM(IST)

Anika Chebrolu, a 14-year-old Indian-American from Guntur. (Picture courtesy: 3M young scientist challenge) Photograph:( Others )

Story highlights

In an exclusive conversation with WION, Anika spoke about how after learning about the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic for a school project, she became fascinated with viruses and drug discovery. Excerpts from the interview.

Even as the entire world is grappling with the Covid pandemic and vying for a possible vaccine, an Indian-American teenager has won a $25,000 prize for her work on a potential coronavirus treatment.

Along with the prize money, 14-year-old Anika Chebrolu has also been conferred the title of “America’s Top Young Scientist” for winning this year’s 3M Young Scientist Challenge, a middle school science competition in the US.

In an exclusive conversation with WION, Anika spoke about how after learning about the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic for a school project, she became fascinated with viruses and drug discovery.

Excerpts from the interview:

WION: Please tell us about your discovery/findings in details.

Anika: Through my research, I discovered a molecule that can attach to the Spike protein on the SARS-CoV2 virus and potentially change its shape and function. If you change the Spike protein shape, you can prevent the virus from being able to grab onto human cells and thereby, reduce or treat further infection in a person’s body.

I started by identifying my drug target which was the Spike protein on the membrane of the SARS-CoV2 virus. I screened millions of small molecules against the Spike protein on the surface of the virus and tested three main things --

I tested molecules for their binding affinity, which is a test on how best the molecules combine to a certain spot on the spike protein.

I tested to see if molecules would cause adverse effects in biological systems.

I tested the molecules to be sure they could function when taken orally in the human body.

Once I ran these tests, I narrowed it down to one lead compound that showed the best results from all the test I ran in the study and that can effectively bind to the Spike protein on the SARS-CoV2 and provide a potential antiviral to the COVID-19 pandemic.

WION: How can this be a hope for the potential treatment of Covid-19? Were there other findings by other youth as well? How was yours different?

Anika: The protein I studied is the Spike protein, which plays a critical role in the infectivity of the virus, or the binding and entering of the virus, into human cells. In targetting and altering the shape of this specific protein, we would basically be able to stop the virus from entering other, non-infected, human cells and thereby create a treatment that would prevent the virus from further spreading in a person with Covid-19 infection.

The other finalists in the 3M Young Scientist Challenge all had different projects, and they were all so fascinating! I truly enjoyed learning from everyone I was with.

WION: How and when did you get the idea of such discovery? What was your inspiration?

Anika: After learning about the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic for a school project, I became fascinated with viruses and drug discovery. I began researching drug discovery and learned about the in-silico methodology. I was amazed at how we could use computational methods to identify and develop potential drug-like molecules to combat diseases.

Last year, I tried using the silico methodology to identify a lead compound which could bind to the Hemagglutinin protein of Influenza virus. I was working on this project when Covid-19 hit.

After spending so much time researching about pandemics, viruses, and drug discovery, I couldn’t believe I was actually living through a pandemic. Due to Covid-19’s impact, I, with support of my mentor, Dr Mahfuza Ali from 3M, as part of the 3M Young Scientist 

Challenge, decided to change the direction of my initial project to focus on how to potentially target the Spike protein of the SARS-CoV2 virus.

WION: How do you feel being named “America's Top Young Scientist”?

Anika: It is such a great feeling to earn that title and I am still in shock that I won the competition. Each of the other finalists had such great projects and innovations. They are all such well-rounded individuals. They taught me so much through teamwork and collaboration. I wouldn’t have been able to learn on my own.

WION: How are you planning to develop your findings into the cure of Covid-19?

Anika: My work this summer was to find a molecule that can bind to the Spike protein of the SARS-CoV2 virus and potentially provide a treatment route against the coronavirus using computational methods. However, my research is merely the first stage of a long and tedious drug discovery process to come. It needs to be tested further by in vitro and in vivo methods followed by human testing.

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