A middle-school teen has been named “America’s top young scientist” after developing a bar of soap that could be useful in the treatment of melanoma, a skin cancer that is diagnosed in about 100,000 people in the US each year and kills approximately 8,000.
Heman Bekele, a 14-year-old ninth grader from Annandale, Virginia, won the award after beating out nine other finalists.
“Curing cancer, one bar of soap at a time,” he said in his submission. “I have always been interested in biology and technology, and this challenge gave me the perfect platform to showcase my ideas,” he added.
He pitched his idea for a soap – the “skin cancer treating soap” – made from compounds that could reactivate dendritic cells that guard human skin, enabling them to fight cancer cells. In a video to the 3M Young Scientist Challenge, Bekele said he believed “that young minds can make a positive impact on the world”.
Bekele’s idea came from living in Ethiopia to the age of four where, he told the Washington Post, he had seen people constantly working under the hot sun: “I wanted to make my idea something that not only was great in terms of science but also could be accessible to as many people as possible.”
His mentor at 3M, Deborah Isabelle, described the teen to the outlet as “focused on making the world a better place for people he hasn’t necessarily even met yet”.
According to American Cancer Society (ACA), skin cancer is the most common of all cancers, with melanoma accounting for only 1% but causing the majority of skin cancer deaths.
The society says the rates of melanoma have been rising rapidly over the past few decades, particularly among women over 50, and it is more than 20 times more common in white people than in Black people. At the same time, melanoma mortality rates have declined over the past decade because of advances in treatment.
After winning the award, Bekele told the judging panel he hoped to turn the soap into a “symbol of hope, accessibility and a world where skin cancer treatment is within reach for all”.