Dr Mahfuza Ali, who mentored Anika Chebrolu, is a corporate scientist in the Materials Resource Division at 3M Company based in Minnesota. Ali holds a PhD in Organic Chemistry, has invented several successful commercialised products for 3M and coauthored numerous patents. One of only three female scientists in the top tier at 3M, she was chosen North America’s Top Industrial Chemist - 2020 by the American Chemical Society, the world’s largest scientific community.
When she is not designing trailblazing products, Ali teaches science in 3M’s Science Training Encouragement Program (STEP) and mentors young 3M scientists. Anika received guidance from Ali when she signed up to take part in the 3M Young Scientist Challenge competition and went on to win the competition for discovering a molecule that can lead to a potential antiviral therapy for coronavirus. Ali reflects on Anika’s discovery with THE WEEK.
What were your first impressions of Anika?
I was intrigued by her video entry for the 3M Young Scientist Challenge competition and wanted to learn more about how she used the in-silico method to identify a lead compound which could bind to the Hemagglutinin protein of the influenza virus. She spoke about her work passionately and with authority, well beyond her years. I was immediately impressed and looked forward to working with her on this programme.
What inspired you to guide Anika to veer her research towards Covid-19?
When Anika first started her project, she was using the in-silico method to identify a lead compound that could bind to the Hemagglutinin protein of the influenza virus. Due to the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic and the drastic impact it had made on the world in such a short time, Anika and I discussed if her learnings from the influenza virus could be applied to Covid-19. As a result, it was decided to change the direction of her project to target the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
What was your initial reaction when Anika told you what she had discovered?
I was very excited to see her progress and that she could finally home in on one molecule with the best pharmacological and biological activity towards the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. In her research, Anika screened millions of small molecules methodically by using numerous software tools. With further research, this could be a potential drug for effective treatment of Covid-19.
What is the next step with regard to research and the fight against Covid-19?
The next research step would be to examine her findings in a clinical setting and verify the mechanism by in-vitro and in-vivo experiments, to develop an effective treatment for the coronavirus.
Could Anika's discovery extend to other spheres of antiviral remedies?
I think the mechanism that Anika used to disrupt influenza and SARS-CoV-2 viruses’ infection of human cells could be applicable to other viruses.
What will Anika and 3M's breakthrough achieve, given the fact that there are now vaccine options for Covid-19?
Vaccines operate by a different mechanism than antiviral drugs. Vaccines prevent or mitigate infections but antivirals are drugs that can treat people who have already been infected by the virus. Even though vaccines were developed at a record pace, it will be many months before the vaccines can get distributed to all populations. So, in the meantime, there is a strong need to develop effective, easy-to-use, low-cost solutions for treatment for those who may get infected with coronavirus, especially to relieve our overburdened hospitals and health care systems.
What do you believe Anika's success will mean for girls or women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)?
The 3M Young Scientist Challenge is one of the ways we hope to inspire, support and celebrate the next generation of scientists by inviting students to solve problems in their local or global communities. Unfortunately, women still often lag in representation in STEM subjects due to stigma and cultural stereotypes, but these preconceptions are slowly disappearing because women are participating and thriving in scientific fields. Young girls should be motivated by Anika’s success and her project’s applications to the real world; they will hopefully be energised to pursue a STEM education to contribute to society.