Summit supercomputer leads researchers to interesting COVID-19 theory

The Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility is home to the second fastest supercomputer in the world and the fastest super computer in the US.

That supercomputer is known as Summit and it is capable of 200 petaFLOPS. The Summit was the fastest supercomputer in the world until June 2020 when the Fugaku supercomputer came online.

But we’re not here to compare performance because Summit has helped fight COVID-19 in a rather interesting way.

A team of researchers at the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility used Summit to compare the genes from the lung fluid of nine COVID-19 patients with 40 samples from folks who weren’t infected with the virus.

Using Summit, the researchers were able to run 2.5 billion correlation calculations in one week – a feat that might’ve taken months on a desktop computer.

Once the calculations were done the researchers had to analyse the data and they found something interesting.

“This is one of those rare times where you can really tie everything back to a eureka moment,” says Dan Jacobson of the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

“I was looking at data, and I suddenly saw some very distinct patterns happening in the pathways of the renin-angiotensin and bradykinin systems. That led us to do a deep dive of the gene families of the blood pressure regulatory system,” recounts the researcher.

So if like us you aren’t a biologist or physician, what are the “renin-angiotensin and bradykinin systems”?

To explain it as simply as possibly, these systems control blood pressure and fluid balance in the body.

The researchers noticed that in COVID-19 paitients there was an increased expression of enzymes which trigger the production of bradykinin but conversely a decreased expression for the enzymes which break bradykinin down.

The hope is that existing drugs which act on the pathways the researchers observed can be used to treat COVID-19 patients.

The team found similar behaviour in the lungs with a substance known as hyaluronic acid

“The lungs of COVID-19 patients are known to have an increased amount of hyaluronic acid, a gooey substance found in connective tissues that can trap around 1 000 times its own weight in water to form a hydrogel. The team also found that genes in the cells of COVID-19 patients increased the production of the substance and decreased its breakdown. The findings suggest that further experimental study of drug compounds known to slow the synthesis of hyaluronic acid and the mechanisms involved in the process is warranted,” reads a report from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

All of this is of course dependent on conducting extensive clinical trials to see whether what Jacobson and the team noticed has any impact on COVID-19.

What is interesting is how much faster this was spotted than it would have if a supercomputer wasn’t being used.

We urge you to read the full report linked above but we also recommend heading to co-founder and CEO of Gado Images, Thomas Smith’s blog where we originally spotted this story.

Something nerdy for you to read during loadshedding.

[Image – Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM]

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