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Can a supercomputer save us from the coronavirus? We spoke to the man who knows

Across the world, dozens of research labs and hundreds of researchers are busy actively investigating possible vaccines for the coronavirus, officially known as COVID-19. At the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, researchers have recently started using Summit, the world’s most powerful supercomputer, to try and discover drug compounds that might be able to stop the coronavirus from infecting host cells.

In only two days, the work by the IBM-built supercomputer has yielded the discovery of 77 small-molecule drug compounds with the potential to battle COVID-19. It does this by running advanced simulations, as opposed to the traditional “wet lab” approach to drug discovery, which would take years to reach the same point. Not only can Summit help quickly discover possible proteins, it can rank the compounds in order of their potential value for further experimentation. On today’s Digital Trends Live, we spoke to one of the brains behind IBM’s superpowered artificial brain.

“[This compound discovery work is done] by virtue of writing software that’s based on an understanding of chemistry, physics, and so on,” Dave Turek, vice president of technical computing at IBM Cognitive Systems, told Digital Trends. “That allows them to simulate the behavior of the virus in the presence of a healthy cell. You move away from [the] concept of biology that you think of from your high school days of beakers and pipettes and things like that, to doing everything computationally in a digital world. By virtue of doing that, you can actually explore the science of the virus and potential therapeutic agents much much faster than you could in a … classic kind of laboratory setting.”

To be clear, Summit’s discovery doesn’t mean that a cure or treatment for the current coronavirus pandemic has been discovered. However, these findings can be used as the basis for future studies, as well as provide a framework that traditional wet labs can use to investigate the new compounds. It will be possible to find out if any of them are capable of killing the virus as hoped.

Right now, the number one target for vaccines is, of course, the current coronavirus. But research such as this can be more broadly applicable too. The use of A.I. to discover more effective and lower-cost drugs will, in the coming years, lead to breakthroughs in the way that all manner of diseases and conditions are treated.

A paper describing the Oak Ridge National Laboratory research was recently published in the journal ChemRxiv.

Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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