As the COVID-19 pandemic started sweeping across the world, TEN7 looked for a way to help. We launched an initiative called “Computing for COVID,” aimed at supporting the vast computation requirements of the University of Washington’s Baker Lab and their efforts to develop new therapies and cures.
We put out a call to action, asking people to support this effort. The response was overwhelming. In a matter of weeks we helped activate more than 90 cloud computers, placing our program in the top one percent of all the contributors assisting this lab.
Now, as vaccines are rolling out, we wondered if the Computing for COVID effort was still necessary, so we checked in with the Baker Lab to get an update. Molecular engineer at the lab, Brian Coventry, said the vaccines are an exciting step, but the work at his lab remains critical not only for developing COVID therapies, but also for helping us avoid future pandemics.
“For us, science is a cycle of design, test, learn and then do it again,” said Coventry. “We’re trying to get enough data to learn from as well as trying to understand the fundamental science behind it all. For instance, my next targets are the RSV virus, influenza, Nipah virus and we’re working on MERS virus. We hope to create therapeutics for all of those, and we get better with every round.”
The work at Baker Lab is focused around creating “de novo” protein binders, meaning they are completely human-made in the lab. This allows the scientists to create “recipes” from scratch to try to come up with proteins that will bind with the virus that causes COVID-19 to prevent infection. That may sound simple enough, but there are millions of ways to combine the amino acids to make the protein, and each combination “folds” as it forms, transforming into a different complex shape. Trying to find the right combination to create the right three-dimensional shape to bond with the virus is a puzzle that requires immense computational power.
If the lab can solve this puzzle, the benefits will go far beyond COVID-19. This technology could provide therapies to treat and prevent a wide range of viruses including, perhaps, the next emerging virus to prevent it from ever becoming a pandemic. The treatments could be delivered through inhalers or perhaps nasal sprays, making them far easier to administer than infused antibody treatments. They are also more durable, so they wouldn’t require complicated temperature controlled environments.
“If we get really good, we should be a lot faster than antibodies, because as soon as we have a target structure, we’re making binders to it,” said Coventry. “Our proteins are way, way cheaper to make and way more shelf stable. Our binders can survive boiling water whereas antibodies have to be stored in the fridge or a lot colder than that.”
The promise of the work at the Baker Lab doesn’t mean these new therapies are right around the corner. There is a lot of research, computation, and evaluation still to be done to develop effective and safe treatments. This is brand new technology, so the lab knows they need to carefully take each step along the way. That’s why the power of the Computing for COVID effort remains vital (although we may rename it to reflect the broader scope). It’s one way we can all play a role in advancing science and changing the way we respond to viruses and protect lives.
If you’d like to support Computing for COVID, the process is simple. Just follow the instructions and join our effort to support groundbreaking research.