We live in an increasingly interconnected world where information, goods and people flow between geographical regions with unprecedented porosity. As what is essentially a packet of biochemical information, viruses are no different; with today’s ubiquity of cross-border transportation, their transmission can take place faster over a greater area than ever before. Unlocking the mechanisms of these viruses is of growing importance for both human wellbeing and our global connectivity.
Even an illness like the common cold has widespread health and social impacts. Indeed, the Human Rhinovirus (HRV), the most frequent cause of colds, is believed to exacerbate asthma in about 70 percent of cases; and in Australia alone, the common cold costs employers around 1.5 million workdays, or $600m in lost productivity per year.
Yet despite selling more than $250m worth of remedies in Australia every year, we still know relatively little about the viruses responsible. By applying high performance computing (HPC) to antiviral research, we hope to not only devise more effective treatments but also set a new benchmark for understanding diseases.
In conjunction with researchers at the IBM Research Collaboratory for Life Sciences–Melbourne, scientists from St. Vincent’s Institute of Medical Research and the University of Melbourne are now using IBM supercomputing technology to simulate the common cold at the molecular level. With the aid of the Victorian Life Sciences Computation Initiative’s (VLSCI) new IBM Blue Gene/Q supercomputer, these researchers are working to build a fully atomistic, three-dimensional simulation of HRV. As far as we know, these calculations are the first to include not only the 3 million plus atoms of the rhinovirus capsid—or outer shell—and their aqueous environment, but also the virus’ RNA genome, that packet of genetic information necessary for the virus to replicate.
The inclusion of the genome in simulations is critical to the studies, as it affects both the stability of the capsid and the binding of potential drugs. This will allow researchers to gain a more precise picture of how a drug attacks rhinovirus at the molecular level, and potentially lead to future treatments for other viruses as well. However, doing so requires vast amounts of processing power not previously available to researchers in Australia. The VLSCI’s IBM Blue Gene/Q supercomputer is ranked as the 31st-most powerful supercomputer in the world, and the fastest not only in Australia but also in the southern hemisphere. Available to life sciences researchers across Victoria, the supercomputer is being used to address a wide range of human diseases beyond HRV, including epilepsy, cancer, polio and malaria.
The significance of this collaborative research extends far beyond the rhinovirus. It could offer a new path forward in adapting drugs to combat other viruses in the same family. And it could accelerate the science behind treatments of new and emerging viral strains, leveraging expertise from different research fields and researchers trained in multiple disciplines, like those in the IBM Research Collaboratory for Life Sciences—Melbourne. By tackling such viruses with multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary collaborations, backed by the most powerful technologies on offer, we hope to achieve insights that will benefit all humankind.
Download an infographic on the common cold here.
See story in the Herald Sun here.