He developed a cancer-fighting soap – while in middle school

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In a video for a nationwide science competition, Heman Bekele spelled out his mission in a single sentence.

“Curing cancer, one bar of soap at a time.”

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In the two-minute video, Heman, a student at Fairfax County’s Frost Middle School, pitched his idea for a soap that could help fight skin cancer at a cost of less than $10 per bar. The soap, Heman explained, would be made with compounds that could reactivate the cells that guard human skin, enabling them to fight cancer cells. In April, Heman submitted the video to the 3M Young Scientist Challenge, an annual competition that invites students in grades five through eight to “change their world for the better with a single innovative idea.”

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Earlier this month, after competing against nine other finalists in the challenge, he won the title of America’s Top Young Scientist.

“To see that all of the hard work paid off in the end, it was really a surreal experience,” Heman, now 14, told The Washington Post.

Heman’s idea for the competition came from the early years of his life in Ethiopia.

“There, I always saw people who were constantly working under the hot sun,” Heman said.

He moved to the United States at age 4 and never really thought much more about it. But as he started considering ideas for the competition, he harked back to his time in Ethiopia and wondered how many of the people he’d seen working in the sun were aware of the risk of sun exposure. The memories fueled his decision to focus his research on skin cancer.

“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,” Heman said.

As he thought about his approach, Heman wanted his product to be something that was as much of a “constant” in people’s lives as possible – an item that was “most convenient and most trustworthy,” he said.

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“No matter where you live, I think you know and trust soap in comparison to other medicinal products,” Heman said.

Heman submitted his pitch video and, in June, got a call that he was one of 10 finalists in the 3M Young Scientist Challenge. All finalists were paired with a mentor from 3M, which hosts the challenge along with Discovery Education, to develop and test a physical prototype of their ideas.

Heman’s mentor, 3M product engineering specialist Deborah Isabelle, said she could see the teen’s energy and passion for the project from their first meeting. She described Heman as “focused on making the world a better place for people he hasn’t necessarily even met yet.”


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Heman and Isabelle had weekly virtual meetings as he worked on the prototype and documented his process – a requirement of the competition.

It took months of trial and error to create a prototype with a combination of compounds that could work effectively. Heman used computer modeling to determine the formula for the soap prototype he planned to present at the final competition.

The soap, called Skin Cancer Treating Soap (SCTS), works by using a compound that helps revive dendritic cells, which are killed by cancer cells. Once the dendritic cells are revived, they are able to then fight against the cancer cells. In essence, it reactivates the body’s healing power, Isabelle said.

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“The Skin Cancer Treating Soap reminds the body how to defend itself,” she said.

Similar creams and ointments exist, Heman said, but he doesn’t believe soap has ever been used to fight against skin cancers in their early stages.

Earlier this month, Heman was given five minutes to present his idea to a panel of judges at the final event, held in St. Paul, Minn.

As his presentation came to a close, Heman told the 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.”

Though he won the competition, Heman’s plan for the soap stretches far beyond it.

He has a five-year plan, which includes seeking approval from the Food and Drug Administration. Isabelle has already connected him with other scientists who specialize in medical products to help him move forward with his plans.

Heman also hopes to start a nonprofit to distribute the soap in the future, he said.

“There is still a lot left to do,” he said.

For more health news and content around diseases, conditions, wellness, healthy living, drugs, treatments and more, head to Healthing.ca – a member of the Postmedia Network.

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Originally posted 2023-10-25 13:45:28.