Teen wins $25k for finding molecule that may disarm coronavirus

Conceptual illustration of coronavirus spike proteins on the surface of the virus
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, a 14-year-old from Texas has won a national science competition for identifying a molecule that can bind to the virus and potentially disable it.

Anika Chebrolu, who hails from Frisco, used computer modeling to search for a compound that binds tightly to the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein — a structure that juts off the coronavirus surface and plugs into human cells to trigger infection. In theory, such a compound should prevent the virus from infecting cells. When designing new antiviral drugs, scientists often perform computational studies, just like Chebrolu's, as a critical first step.

For her impressive work, Chebrolu earned first prize in the 2020 3M Young Scientist Challenge, a U.S.-based science competition for middle-school students. Chebrolu signed up for the contest months ago while still in middle school, with the initial intention of studying influenza, according to a video interview with KTVT, a CBS-affiliate.

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"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," she told CNN

"Her work was comprehensive and examined numerous databases," Cindy Moss, a judge for the 3M Young Scientist Challenge, told CNN. "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," added Moss, who is the senior director of global STEM initiatives for Discovery Education, which runs the competition with 3M. Chebrolu received a $25,000 prize for winning this year's competition.

Identifying a molecule that binds to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, took tremendous work.

"I started with a database of over 698 million compounds," Chebrolu told KTVT. She ran these many compounds through iterative screenings on the computer, to assess their binding ability, molecular structure and drug-like characteristics, such as how they would break down in the human body and whether they could be toxic to cells. Each screening narrowed her search, until she was left with one lead compound that could bind to the coronavirus and keep it from infecting cells. 

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In addition to her prize-winning coronavirus study, Chebrolu also completed an influenza study that she initially submitted to the competition. "I was drawn towards finding effective cures for influenza disease after a severe bout of the infection last year," she said in a statement on the competition website.

"From the initial 3 million compounds, I was able to narrow down to one potential drug candidate" that selectively binds to and inhibits the influenza virus, she said in her video entry for the competition. Chebrolu told CNN that she aims to work alongside scientists to develop her drug candidates into full-fledged medicines that help tame these viral infections.

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

In 15 years, Chebrolu said she hopes to be a medical researcher and professor, according to the competition website. In her spare time, she sketches and studies Bharatanatyam, a style of Indian classical dance. "I describe myself as a person who aspires to be a lot of things," Chebrolu told KTVT.

Originally published on Live Science. 

Nicoletta Lanese
Channel Editor, Health

Nicoletta Lanese is the health channel editor at Live Science and was previously a news editor and staff writer at the site. She holds a graduate certificate in science communication from UC Santa Cruz and degrees in neuroscience and dance from the University of Florida. Her work has appeared in The Scientist, Science News, the Mercury News, Mongabay and Stanford Medicine Magazine, among other outlets. Based in NYC, she also remains heavily involved in dance and performs in local choreographers' work.