Not all Heroes Wear Capes: Crowd-sourced Virtual Supercomputer Built to Speed Up COVID-19 Research

Published March 24th, 2020 - 02:45 GMT
Not all Heroes Wear Capes: Crowd-sourced Virtual Supercomputer Built to Speed Up COVID-19 Research
The researchers are looking for "pockets" or holes in the virus where a drug can be squeezed in. (Shutterstock)
Highlights
The Folding@Home project led by computational biologists has interconnected thousands of machines to form a virtual supercomputer.

Gamers, bitcoin "miners", and companies have teamed up for an unprecedented data-crunching effort that aims to harness idle computing power to accelerate research for a coronavirus treatment.

"It is a fantastic weapon against the feeling of helplessness," said Pedro Valadas, a Portuguese lawyer who heads one of the largest contributions from a group of PC enthusiasts and gamers which has some 24,000 members, AFP reported.

The Folding@Home project led by computational biologists has interconnected thousands of machines to form a virtual supercomputer.

"It is the world's most powerful supercomputer that can handle trillions of calculations needed to understand the structure of the virus. More than 400,000 users downloaded the application in the past two weeks," said Greg Bowman, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics at Washington University in St. Louis, where the project is based.

"Many of us suffered or saw their relatives suffer from this novel virus. It is really encouraging to see that any person is now able to assist and help others combat coronavirus from his house on his personal computer," said Valadas.

The project originally launched at Stanford University and Silicone Valley 20 years ago was designed to use crowdsourced computing power for simulations to better understand diseases, especially "protein folding" anomalies that can make pathogens deadly. "The simulations allow us to watch how every atom moves throughout time," Bowman told AFP. The researchers are looking for "pockets" or holes in the virus where a drug can be squeezed in.

Bowman said he is optimistic about this effort because the team previously found a "druggable" target in the Ebola virus and because COVID-19 is structurally similar to the SARS virus which has been the subject of many studies. "If we managed to determine an existing molecule that can bind to one of these "pockets", we can directly use it to develop a treatment." This is likely to include drugs like the antimalarials which may be repurposed for COVID-19.


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