LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) - Kentucky classrooms may be empty due to the coronavirus, but their computers aren’t sitting idle. They’re still being used to help find a cure for the disease.
Researchers at the University of Louisville are using the computing power of thousands of computers in classrooms across the state to identify drugs to treat COVID-19. The desktop computers are part of the DataseamGrid, a network of computers housed in classrooms of 48 Kentucky school districts as part of a partnership designed to support research, education, and workforce development.
Normally, Dr. John Trent, deputy director of basic and translational research at the U of L Health James Graham Brown Cancer Center, conducts virtual screening to discover new cancer drugs using the DataseamGrid for high-volume computations. Today, he has the computers at work 24/7 to identify the most promising drugs and compounds to fight SARS-CoV-2 and its disease, COVID-19.
“In these unprecedented times, we had a resource where we could potentially make an impact quickly and switch over from some of our cancer targets to SARS-CoV-2 targets,” Trent said. “We have been very successful in doing this in cancer for 15 years. We are using the same approach in targeting the coronavirus, just targeting a different protein.”
Established in 2003 by the Kentucky General Assembly, Dataseam provides computing infrastructure, workforce development and educational opportunities for students and staff in Kentucky school districts. Available computing power in those units is put to work performing computer modeling calculations to screen anti-cancer drugs for Trent’s team and collaborators at U of L.
“Like a lot of industries, we have shifted our skills and infrastructure to address this issue,” said Brian Gupton, CEO of Dataseam. “We are always going to have cancer, but at least for the time being, we are glad the DataseamGrid is here for Dr. Trent to screen those drugs.”
In mid-March, Trent and his team began work on the DataseamGrid, along with U of L’s dedicated research computers, in a two-pronged approach to match three-dimensional models of proteins in SARS-CoV-2 to drugs and compounds that could help in treating or preventing COVID-19. The DataseamGrid provides up to 80 percent of the computational power for these projects.
The first, is testing about 2,000 drugs already on the market and another 9,000 investigational drugs that have been tested for toxicity, to isolate those most likely to be effective against the virus.
“For the immediate approach, we are testing drugs that already are approved by the FDA or have been tested in humans. If we find activity with those drugs, we could get them into patient trials a lot quicker,” Trent said. “However, these drugs obviously were designed for something else and they may not have the same efficacy of a very selective drug.”
Trent’s second prong of research includes computational models to screen 37 million small molecules and compounds against the target proteins in SARS-CoV-2, to see if they could be used to develop a new drug specifically to treat the virus. However, that process would take more time to obtain FDA approval.
“That initial discovery of a new, more-selective agent is more long term. You are looking at 12 to 18 months before you would even think about testing those in a patient,” Trent said. “But time is of essence at the moment, so we are doing both things at the same time.”
Using the DataseamGrid and U of L research computers, Trent and his team are screening the drugs and small molecules against 3-D structures of four proteins in the virus to see which compounds might bind with the proteins, which would reduce the virus’s ability to spread.
So far, the process has identified about 30 drugs as potentially effective against SARS-CoV-2. Trent recommended these for biological testing by researchers at U of L’s Center for Predictive Medicine for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases, or CPM. The CPM is one of only a few labs in the United States capable of testing the drugs against the virus, which is expected to begin later this month.
If the CPM researchers find the drugs to be effective against SARS-CoV-2 in the lab, they could be moved to the next phase of testing in animal models, which may also be conducted at CPM.