SARASOTA, Fla. (WWSB) -
NASA is flexing its supercomputing muscle to help crack some of the most pressing questions surrounding COVID-19, from basic science on how the virus interacts with cells in the human body to genetic risk factors to screening for potential therapeutic drugs.
Supercomputer models at NASA’s Ames Research Center are typically used for projects simulating the movements of air masses and water around the planet to study Earth's climate, or even hunting for exoplanets. It is now being used to study the Coronavirus at an atomic level, while using the advanced abilities of NASA’s supercomputers.
"You look at protein structures that gives you insight, let’s say there are certain proteins that are associated with certain regions that are associated with SARS-2 or COVID-19,” says Dr. Afshin Beheshti, Bioinformatician and Principal Investigator, KBR at NASA Ames Research Center. He is the Co-Lead of the COVID-19 International Research Team (COV-IRT).
Ames’ supercomputing power is being drafted to look at the genetic risk factors associated with COVID-19 patients developing Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome, or ARDS. ARDS is a complication of COVID-19 that occurs when the disease causes fluid to build up in the lungs, which often requires a ventilator to help patients breathe. The supercomputers are also being used on how the Novel Coronavirus uses its spiked proteins on its exterior to enter cells will better help researchers to determine what drugs or therapies may be most effective against it. Once in the cell, the Novel Coronavirus hijacks the cell’s functions to replicate itself, so more virus can spread through the body.
Dr. Beheshti says, "When you look at these proteins you get the insight on possible ways that you can target something on the virus itself because there might be weaker links in the protein. For example, there are things that you don't know until you run the models and figure out how the structure is."
Beheshti believes that his team has put together a well-formed hypothesis that could ultimately help in the fight against the Coronavirus. This is by targeting mitochondria, which is a fuel your body needs.
"If you have been tested positive and before it's in full blown effect, you can take possibly some medications that we could look into and other people can look into, to actually prevent that from happening. You might get affected, but then you won't get any of the symptoms, your helping to prevent the symptoms I would say.
The MIT software that will run on the supercomputer produces new 3D models of the molecules from their known chemical compositions. This allows the computer to represent the molecule more accurately, so that, when presented with a new molecule it hasn’t seen before, it can better predict whether it will bind with the novel Coronavirus.
The trained algorithm can then look at a catalogue of existing therapeutic drugs at the molecular level to find those that contain molecules that are likely to be biologically active against the novel Coronavirus. Drugs that have already been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or similar agencies worldwide as safe for patients are the fastest route to finding drugs that can be used soonest in hospitals to treat the novel Coronavirus, according to NASA’s Earth Science News Team.
Patients who have tested positive for COVID-19, and are asymptomatic could also play a role in helping to find a cure for the virus. Dr Beheshti says they are working with various facilities for on-going testing. These would be facilities that have Internal Board Review policies in place.
For more information on COV-IRT and how to share samples and data to help fight against the virus visit www.cov-irt.org