Coronavirus: Lawrence Livermore Lab researchers examine virus in hopes of blocking, treating it

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ByEric Thomas KGO logo
Thursday, February 6, 2020
Lawrence Livermore Lab researchers examine coronavirus in hopes of blocking, treating it
Lawrence Livermore Lab researchers are exploring the basic building blocks of the coronavirus in hopes of blocking and treating it.

LIVERMORE, Calif. (KGO) -- Deep inside the heavily protected Lawrence Livermore Lab complex scientists are trying to build a 3D model of the proteins that make up the structure of the coronavirus.

They hope doing that will provide researchers with a starting point for finding out what makes the virus tick and how to fight it.

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Today, the Lab showed us the model they've come up with, colored in vivid red, green and blue. Part DNA double helix, part abstract sculpture.

"The new Coronavirus is not very well understood yet. The structure of the key protein we want to target is not yet known" says Daniel Faissol, part of the research team at Lawrence Livermore.

Thankfully, the team didn't have to start from scratch. The new coronavirus' protein structure is a close cousin of the SARS virus that killed close to 800 people in the early 2000's. The structure of SARS is well known, so they're using that as a starting point.

They know it's not identical and refinements will have to be made. They're making those refinements using the Lab's own Sierra Supercomputer, the second most powerful in the world - capable of doing more calculations in 1 second than a human could do in 31 billion years.

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They're using all that computing power to try to figure out which antibodies could attack the virus and neutralize it. But even Sierra can't predict all the ways the virus could change in the future, and it will, "even with the biggest supercomputers in the world, we can't evaluate all possible designs," says Faissol.

That's where experience and intuition help in narrowing the search.

"So the question is: what do you want to look at? What are the possibilities? How do you make those decisions," says Lawrence Livermore scientist Thomas Desautels.

The model isn't detailed enough to answer those questions. But, it is a place to start.

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