A 14-year-old teenager was named “America’s Top Young Scientist” after winning this year’s 3M Young Scientist Challenge. He was given the distinction for creating a bar of soap that fights low-grade skin cancer.
Heman Bekele, who is a freshman at W.T. Woodson High School, moved from Ethiopia to Virginia when he was 4 years old, according to Fairfax County Public Schools.
“Skin cancer is mostly found on people who live within developing countries,” Bekele said. “But the average price for an operation is $40,000. I was devastated by the idea of people having to choose between treatment and putting food on the table for their families. There are so many preventable deaths.”
He started researching skin cancer and learning about dendritic cells, which he says help protect skin by boosting immune response. What started off as a fun science experiment turned into months of combining salicylic acid, glycolic acid and tretinoin to reach his end goal.
“It was so difficult to get a bar of soap that didn’t just melt immediately,” Bekele said. “Persistence is a very important part of the scientific process.”
He enrolled in the 3M Young Scientist Challenge and received help in developing a prototype. Bekele calls the product skin cancer-treating soap or SCTS. He says that it can be used by being applied to the skin every couple days after prescription. It works by replenishing the skin with dendritic cells, which help protect the skin and fight cancer. Bekele noted that it can be fabricated for $0.50 a bar or $8.50 for a pack of 20 bars.
Along with the prestigious title, Bekele received a $25,000 prize, which he wants to put towards securing a patent for his invention and college.
“There’s a lot left for me to discover, but as of right now, I’m thinking of working on something in either the biomedical industry or something as an electrical engineer, so either of those fields would be really cool,” he told NBC.
Bekele’s goals include developing a non-profit organization that will distribute his soap to low-income communities by 2028.