14-year-old wins 3M Young Scientist Challenge for developing skin cancer-treating soap

Published 5:06 pm Friday, October 20, 2023

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By Gracie Stockton and Cathy Wurzer

Heman Bekele, 14, is a ninth grader at W.T. Woodson High School in Annandale, Va., who just created a new treatment for skin cancer.

As part of the annual 3M Young Scientist Challenge, Bekele developed Melanoma Treating Soap. It won him the competition and its grand prize of $25,000 in St. Paul this month.

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Bekele told MPR News his interest in science started at a young age and soon grew into a passion to bring ideas to life.

For one hour each Friday in elementary school, Bekele had free time to innovate to his heart’s desire.

“I remember fondly coding up different games or creating something with circuits and doing stuff like that. It was really, really fun,” Bekele said.

His award-winning melanoma treatment is a compound-based bar of soap, filled with cancer-fighting chemicals.

“It has multiple ingredients in it that are low-cost and very affordable, making it accessible and equitable to as many people as possible, because that is the main aspect of this bar of soap,” Bekele said. “Not only that it can cure skin cancer, but that it can be as accessible as possible to as many people as possible.”

Bekele was born in Ethiopia and moved to the U.S. at the age of 4.

“I always thought people constantly getting hit by the really hot sun and not having the awareness or even the knowledge that this is really a dangerous issue,” he told MPR News.

“So then when they did get diagnosed with skin cancer from all of that sun exposure, they weren’t able to afford any sort of treatment — the average global price of skin cancer is over $40,000.”

Bekele says as he grew older, that inequity stayed with him and inspired him to take action. With the help of mentors, the Young Scientist Challenge helped him turn that hypothesis into a product.

Next, he needs FDA certification, followed by a provisional patent for the soap. Bekele hopes it would hit the market by 2025.

Bekele says the $25,000 prize will help fund product development and his future education.

Other finalists’ innovations include using kelp seaweed to improve soil quality, a cost-effective braille display device and a microneedle patch that allows for automated drug delivery without pills or needles.