University of Tennessee scientists use ORNL supercomputer to seek possible coronavirus cure


OAK RIDGE, Tenn. (WATE) — As the coronavirus outbreak edges closer to East Tennessee, a possible cure could be closer to coming from the region. Two researchers have discovered a chemical compound, which will be further tested soon, that could stop the virus and prevent it from spreading further.

Jeremy Smith, Director of the Center for Molecular Biophysics, a partnership between the University of Tennessee and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, explained their work is made possible by the “world’s most powerful computer,” or the Summit, at ORNL.

“It’s capable of doing calculations very, very, quickly. The response to the new coronavirus needs to be quick,” he said. Smith said the computer’s speed is equivalent to 100,000 laptops working at the same time. “The work it can do in one day,” he added, “would take months on a normal computer.”

Jeremy Smith and Micholas D. Smith, a post-doctoral fellow and soon-to-be UTK research professor, began digital calculations to find a chemical, or drug, that might work against the virus.

This quick, digital, testing has worked previously, Smith said, and cited success in their efforts in the past in finding treatment for diabetes and osteoporosis, for example.

After performing simulations of more than 8,000 compounds, they have narrowed it down to, what they believe, will react to the actual sample.

The next step in the researchers’ mission is to test the digital remedy on an actual sample.

That step includes an expert at the UT Health Science Center in Memphis, Colleen Johnson. The testing would be conducted on an actual coronavirus sample, in the next week, in a controlled environment.

Ironically, the process has been slowed, because Johnson, along with Micholas D. Smith, have both been battling the flu throughout their work.

If their calculations and experiment are successful, their work will be published, without peer review, to allow for a speedy distribution.

The researchers also tested compounds that are already known drugs, approved chemicals, or widely-used for other purposes.

That, he said, would mean it wouldn’t require months of testing.

“It’s difficult to be excited when you haven’t solved the problem yet. but, always, the ultimate aim is to help mankind in some way,” Smith said.

If their work is unsuccessful in the actual sample, they’ll start the calculation process again, with the help of ORNL’s supercomputer.


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