How She Did It

Anika presents her discovery at 3M finals (Photo courtesy of the 3M Company)

Anika Chebrolu’s Research Process

Almost 7 million people around the world have died from the coronavirus since the beginning of this pandemic and just over 1 million in the United States as of this posting. You can see updates on the CNN link above.

Anika Chebrolu, a Texas high school student, stands out among scientists searching for a cure for coronavirus. Her discovery may lead to a potential therapy for COVID-19. Our last post described the backstory of Anika’s success at the 3M Young Scientist Challenge. This post tells the story of her research.

How Viruses Work to Infect Us

What is a virus? And how do viruses infect us? Viruses are the smallest microbes and 500 million cold viruses fit on the head of a pin. They are simply packets of genetic material (DNA or RNA) wrapped in a protective coating. Their only function is to reproduce and they lie dormant until they are inside a host. Then they activate and commandeer the biological mechanisms of the host to reproduce themselves. 

How does the COVID-19 virus get inside a host? It seems to be mostly airborne. People get this disease when sprayed with virus-laden droplets from the mouth or nose of an infected person. Coughing, sneezing, shouting, singing, and even just talking spray the surrounding area all the time. If infected spray droplets enter the nose, eyes, or mouth of someone close by, the virus may now infect this new host. 

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

After a coronavirus enters the body, it can bind with a specific protein on the surface of a cell, often a lung cell. The spikes of the coronavirus have an affinity to bind with a specific receptor on a host cell called the ACE2. Like a key in a lock, the spikes perfectly fit the ACE2 receptor. The coronavirus has evolved this ability to use a “skeleton key” to fool the body’s immune system and dock on the ACE2 receptor. As soon as the virus binds to the host cell and fuses with it, the virus can open up the cell membrane and inject its genetic material, its RNA, into the cell. Once the virus enters the cell, it hijacks the cell’s own biochemical machinery and begins replicating itself. The cell’s machinery cranks out copies of the virus using the RNA of the virus as a template.

In its wake, the virus leaves behind a damaged or dying host cell. The COVID-19 virus particularly targets lung tissues and can severely damage human lungs, as well as the heart, brain, kidneys, and other organs. We are just learning about other long-lasting effects of COVID that can leave people weakened. Bright sunlight and fresh air both kill coronavirus by drying out its protective coating. Vaccinations, handwashing, masking, and social distancing help prevent its spread.

Her Research Process

Anika’s research employed an array of computer power, medical databases, and modeling software programs to find a potential COVID-19 therapy. First, she studied the COVID virus itself, looking for weak spots among its 29 different proteins. She focused on the familiar spike structures that the virus uses to bind to cells and allowing the virus to infect the cell. What if she could prevent the binding region on the spike from docking with the ACE2 receptors on the human cell?

Next, she needed to find a “glue” molecule that would best bind to the area of the virus’s spike that latches onto the ACE2 receptor. Gumming up this binding area might block the virus from binding to human cells. She searched a vast database of binding agents, which contained over 698 million prospective candidates. She screened these down to about 408,000 possibilities.

Which of these 408,000 binding agents would work best against the coronavirus? She then ran simulation software to predict the best binders. From these results, she selected the top 100 candidates for further research and screening.

Anika wanted to make sure that the candidate molecules for a drug to be taken by people would not have harmful effects on the human body. In this next screening, she ran the 100 candidate molecules against a database designed to flag chemicals that may harm humans. Only three molecules passed all the safety criteria she set. 

As a last step, Anika ran these three candidates through a rigorous modeling simulation that helped her pick the best one. This molecule passed all her computer-based tests and screening. This finding completed her year-long quest. Moving ahead with her discovery requires collaboration with medical researchers and doctors. Anika looks forward to this and aims to become a college professor and medical researcher.

Amidst this flurry, Anika still finds time for herself and to hang out with friends. A favorite activity when she’s not studying or doing research is practicing the Indian classical dance known as Bharatanatyam. She also enjoys drawing and painting. In addition, Anika is very active on social media. Her Twitter feed shares timely scientific information about medical research and health. Has all the media attention, in addition to her already busy schedule, been overwhelming? “It’s exciting,” she tells a local CBS reporter. “I’m still trying to process everything.”

Read more about students like Anika Chebrolu who are changing the world in my new book Teen Innovators: Nine Young People Engineering a Better World with Creative Inventions.

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