9th Grader Invents a Soap That Can Treat Skin Cancer

In Virginia, a 14-year-old named Heman Bekele was awarded $25,000 and named America’s Top Young Scientist for developing an innovative, low-cost soap designed to treat skin cancer.

Over a four-month period, Bekele competed against nine other finalists in the Young Scientist Challenge, hosted by 3M and Discovery Education, which motivates young people to use STEM to solve real-world issues. With guidance from a mentor, he transformed his concept into a working prototype that administers cancer-fighting agents through lipid nanoparticles in the soap.

Inspired by his childhood in Ethiopia and the prevalent risks of skin cancer due to constant sun exposure, Bekele was moved to act. “I always thought people were always getting hit by the hot sun working outside,” he recounted to NPR. “I didn’t think much of it when I was really little, but as I grew up I realized how big of an issue [skin cancer] really is. Not only in Ethiopia but everywhere around the world.” He was particularly struck by the high costs of traditional treatments, which can reach $40,000, and the significantly lower survival rates in developing countries.

Determined to make a difference, Bekele began experimenting at home, tackling the challenges of soap-making and learning about dendritic cells, which are crucial for the immune system but are compromised by cancer. His innovative soap activates these cells with Imidazoquinoline, a drug used in treatments for other skin conditions and now being tested against skin cancer.

Bekele shared with PBS how his soap ensures the delivery of medicinal components through lipid-based nanoparticles, offering a novel method to combat skin cancer. His aim was clear: “My main goal was to provide an effective, yet affordable and accessible solution to fight skin cancer.” Remarkably, each bar of his soap costs only $.50 to produce.

Bekele’s next steps involve refining his invention and starting a nonprofit to distribute the soap in underserved communities, ensuring that those most in need can benefit from his groundbreaking work.

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