A research team out of the Institute of Process Engineering of Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS-IPE) has created the first-ever computational model of the H1N1 virus at the atomic level.
The team was able to account for every last atom in the H1N1 virus with the combination of a Mole-8.5 supercomputer and 2,200 graphics processors. Their breakthrough was twofold. Not only is the H1N1 virus better understood, the team’s use of technology was novel. Prior to their research epidemiology and virology — two fields that study disease strains and how they may affect a population — were studied almost exclusively in the lab; this new supercomputer-centric way of dealing with diseases and viruses was simply not possible a few years ago.
Now scientists are able to create a digital simulation, a sort of SIMS for viruses, which will allow them to test potential treatments under different environment and conditions, thus enabling them to understand the minute changes that take place in the virus, all without ever setting foot in a lab. This is important because it will allow scientists increased flexibilty which could improve overall efficiency leading to a more speedy discovery of cures to various illnesses, and the ability to act faster during a global crisis.
While work in the lab is still necessary to some degree, Dr. Wei Ge, a professor of chemical engineering at CAS-IPE and a principal in the H1N1 modeling effort explains:
An exciting prospect looms when we see these two research aspects integrated. Potential treatment targets can be identified. Those that play key roles in the life cycle of the virus can be possible targets. Vice versa, effective drugs should bind effectively to the targets and thus result in a different life cycle for the virus.
To be sure, a lot more research and technology is needed. It would still take a few weeks or months to simulate how a virus will behave over the course of just a few hundreds nanoseconds, according to Ge. But their model will only run faster as they continue to adjust their algorithms. More processing power is also necessary, but that should arrive as future research unfolds.
There are plenty of challenges ahead but the scientists are optimistic. What they've accomplished so far paints a bright future for epidemiologists and virologists alike. With hard work and luck it will one day be possible for scientists to characterize and model a new virus strain at a much faster pace. This will likewise allow them to develop potential treatments more quickly.