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

Conceptual illustration of coronavirus spike proteins on the surface of the virus
(Image: © 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.

Related: 20 of the worst epidemics and pandemics in history 

"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. 

Related: Medicine's journey through the body: 4 stages

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. 

  • Ilikesince
    I hope this means NO Covid
    Reply
  • Valentine Michael Smith
    People at large could and would have the incentive to do or aid in things like this - in a Resource-based Economy.
    Reply
  • Ratwrangler
    So, how is it that a middle-schooler has the tools to find this "magic molecule", but highly-paid scientists all over the world do not?
    Reply
  • kayjay
    Ratwrangler said:
    So, how is it that a middle-schooler has the tools to find this "magic molecule", but highly-paid scientists all over the world do not?
    l think all scientists do, but just that she has the brain power to work it out and they did not, she has a great future ahead !!
    Reply
  • John Harding
    Medical scientists are 'analytically paralysed' meaning they are hell-bent on finding the answer in medical science when the solution lies within another science they are not qualified and outside their field of expertise, which means:

    No vaccine will work.

    Why?

    If you are in the 3 out of 4 category who are asymptomatic you are immune so don't need any drug.

    If you suffer from underlying health conditions (a low immune system) you are part of the 1 in 4 who are susceptible to Covid or any flu where your immune system is low and not respond to any drug.

    Medical sciences do not understand 'sleep-deprivation' which my privately-funded 40 year research can prove and answer which is the cause and reason for a low immune system and why people get Covid.

    Yet no-one will listen.

    Please remember to become immune you must be in contact with Covid my new AI/APP will identify who falls into the 1 in 4 category and needs to isolate to harness their immune system in a very short time.

    A simple process that is free to administer, free to use and free to monitor with no Government or Doctor follow-up using our immune system that has been here before the pandemic started.

    And yes, it is the same for Cancer to give a Cancer-Free-World, not possible?

    Please think again and wonder why some people live to old-age without having any illness????????????

    I have that answer medical science will never find in a thousand years.

    Why?

    The answer lies within another science, part-used by NASA, but never considered on Planet Earth.

    Intrigued to know more?

    Kind regards.

    John Harding
    Reply
  • Chem721
    Ratwrangler said:
    So, how is it that a middle-schooler has the tools to find this "magic molecule", but highly-paid scientists all over the world do not?

    Almost no one discovers such things "on their own", regardless of who they are. And it has not yet been shown to be a "magic molecule".

    And it is likely that her parents are not mopping floors at a McDonalds. We have all seen many "winners" at science fairs getting help from relatives to present a spectacular display.

    In any event, since there are two binding sites by which the virus can infect (1), this compound likely must block both the ACE-2 binding domain and the neuropilin-1 binding domain (now determined as the second receptor) for allowing the virus to result in an infection. It seems unlikely that one compound would inactivate biding at both receptors.

    And it has not been proven that the new compound "discovered" will even work on one receptor, much less both.

    But it would be very clever of Chebrolu if she has found a blocking agent that prevents infectivity for at least one receptor, and especially both! And she would be very, very clever if she did this all on her own!


    1. https://www.liga-fw-lsa.de/?big=coronavirus-second-secret-doorway-into-cells.html
    Reply
  • kayjay
    John Harding said:
    Medical scientists are 'analytically paralysed' meaning they are hell-bent on finding the answer in medical science when the solution lies within another science they are not qualified and outside their field of expertise, which means:

    No vaccine will work.

    Why?

    If you are in the 3 out of 4 category who are asymptomatic you are immune so don't need any drug.

    If you suffer from underlying health conditions (a low immune system) you are part of the 1 in 4 who are susceptible to Covid or any flu where your immune system is low and not respond to any drug.

    Medical sciences do not understand 'sleep-deprivation' which my privately-funded 40 year research can prove and answer which is the cause and reason for a low immune system and why people get Covid.

    Yet no-one will listen.

    Please remember to become immune you must be in contact with Covid my new AI/APP will identify who falls into the 1 in 4 category and needs to isolate to harness their immune system in a very short time.

    A simple process that is free to administer, free to use and free to monitor with no Government or Doctor follow-up using our immune system that has been here before the pandemic started.

    And yes, it is the same for Cancer to give a Cancer-Free-World, not possible?

    Please think again and wonder why some people live to old-age without having any illness????????????

    I have that answer medical science will never find in a thousand years.

    Why?

    The answer lies within another science, part-used by NASA, but never considered on Planet Earth.

    Intrigued to know more?

    Kind regards.

    John Harding
    Medical sciences do not understand 'sleep-deprivation' which my privately-funded 40 year research can prove and answer which is the cause and reason for a low immune system and why people get Covid.
    Unquote.
    l think medical science understands COMPLETELY the resultsof sleep deprivation, it IS a well known fact that sleep deprivation, especially over a long period of time can lower the immune system, especially if combined with stress !! You don`t need to prove ANYTHING with your 40 year private study as the whole world has been aware of it for some time !! Sleep deprivation can also lead to other illnesses, including heart conditions or attacks, in some people. WHY do some people live to be a 100 and beyond? l don`t think ANYONE has the COMPLETE answer, but l would say it is a mixture of good genes, a positive and/or relaxed state of mind, good nutrition, excercise and enough sleep, there may be more !!
    Reply
  • kayjay
    Chem721 said:
    Almost no one discovers such things "on their own", regardless of who they are.

    And it is likely that her parents are not mopping floors at a McDonalds. We have all seen many "winners" at science fairs getting help from relatives to present a spectacular display.

    In any event, since there are two binding sites by which the virus can infect (1), this compound likely must block both the ACE-2 binding domain and the neuropilin-1 binding domain (now determined as the second receptor) for allowing the virus to result in an infection. It seems unlikely that one compound would inactivate biding at both receptors.

    And it has not been proven that the new compound "discovered" will even work on one receptor, much less both.

    But it would be very clever of Chebrolu if she has found a blocking agent that prevents infectivity for at least one receptor, and especially both! And she would be very, very clever if she did this all on her own!


    1. https://www.liga-fw-lsa.de/?big=coronavirus-second-secret-doorway-into-cells.html
    Actually, it is highly likely that the parents, whether mopping floors at McDonalds or not, are not as highly educated as their daughter so would not have access to the studying materials she had. lt`s often the case, and rightly that parents want more for their children than they had when they were young. l`m sure though that she could ask questions from her teachers but also sure that she worked out the answers on her own .
    Reply
  • Mahel Popar
    The effective molecule attaching on SARS-CoV-2 virus proteins was detected in may 2020, I think it is not original it seems a repetitive of this study. The original paper was published as preprint online. And the name of the molecule is N-ACETY-D-GLUCOSAMINE, CHECK THIS LINK FOR DATA: https://www.preprints.org/manuscript/202005.0397/v1Kind regards to all world.
    Reply
  • Chem721
    kayjay said:
    Actually, it is highly likely that the parents, whether mopping floors at McDonalds or not, are not as highly educated as their daughter so would not have access to the studying materials she had.

    I have checked out many stories about "child prodigies " that have been reported over the years, and almost every news report tells something about their parents. They play a vital role in how the child develops, and their opportunities. Usually they are highly educated and technically oriented.

    After looking at six or so news stories on this "discovery", could not help but notice that they only mention she comes from Texas. There is no mention whatever about her parents, schooling, etc., which is usually a red flag about a brilliant kid. Don't get me wrong, I love smart kids. Mozart is my favorite. No proofs required for him!

    Mahel Popar said:
    The effective molecule attaching on SARS-CoV-2 virus proteins was detected in may 2020, I think it is not original it seems a repetitive of this study

    And if this is correct, the story may not be as it seems.
    Reply