Heman Bekele was in middle school when he first announced his mission to cure skin cancer “one bar of soap at a time.” He labored to make a soap recipe that would be both healing and affordable. The final product costs $0.50 per bar. Its ingredients reactivate cells that protect skin. Then they can fight cancer.
In spring 2023, the determined, youthful inventor submitted a video about his soap to the 3M Young Scientist Challenge. The annual competition invites students in grades five through eight to “change their world for the better with a single innovative idea.” Heman’s idea won him the title of America’s Top Young Scientist in 2023.
Heman was born in Ethiopia. His family moved to Virginia when he was four. He never forgot memories of his birth country. He recalls seeing people work long, grueling days under relentless sunlight.
Doctors are uncertain about the exact causes of skin cancer. But exposure to ultraviolet radiation from sunlight increases the risk of getting it.
Skin cancers are the most common types of cancer worldwide. Melanoma is the most dangerous type of skin cancer. It occurs in the cells that produce melanin. This is the pigment that gives your skin its color. An estimated 57,000 people died from melanoma around the world in 2020.
Treatment for melanoma usually involves surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. The average melanoma patient pays more than $40,000. Less developed parts of the world often have no access to advanced cancer treatments. Heman’s research revealed melanoma patients in the United States have a 98% recovery rate. People in undeveloped nations have a 20% recovery rate.
It took months for Heman to create a product with a mix of compounds that worked well. “It was so difficult to get a bar of soap that didn’t just melt immediately,” Heman says. “Persistence is a very important part of the scientific process.”
His soap contains a drug often used to fight fungal infections and acne. Recent studies suggest that it can also combat skin cancer. Similar creams and ointments exist, but Heman does not believe soap has ever been used to fight skin cancers in early stages.
In an interview with NPR, Heman said, “I hope to turn this passion project into a nonprofit organization where I can provide equitable and accessible skin cancer treatment to as many people as possible. Because honestly at the end of the day, that is what this project is all about.”
Defend the rights of the poor and needy. — Proverbs 31:9
Why? God gives even youths creative abilities to help others. We love God and our neighbor well when we seek to serve those with fewer medical and financial resources.