Ottawa

Carleton researchers turn to AI, supercomputer in fight against COVID-19

With the help of a supercomputer and artificial intelligence, a research team at Carleton University is building synthetic proteins that are 75 per cent effective against COVID-19, and could one day be used to treat people who have contracted the virus.

Synthetic protein treatment could be released within a year

This colourized scanning electron micrograph shows an apoptotic cell (red) infected with SARS-COV-2 virus particles (yellow), isolated from a patient sample. (NIH/Reuters)

With the help of a supercomputer and artificial intelligence, a research team at Carleton University is building synthetic proteins that are 75 per cent effective against COVID-19, and could one day be used to treat people who have contracted the virus.

"Seventy-five per cent is very significant," Ashkan Golshani, a Carleton University biology professor, told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning on Monday.  

"Our immune system is the one that kicks in and defends us, so if we are damaging the army which is attacking us by 75 per cent, that gives a very good boost to our immune system."

Proteins need to communicate with each other to perform tasks, Golshani said, and use physical contact to transmit signals. 

Ashkan Golshani is a Carleton University biology professor. (supplied by Ashkan Golshani)

Golshani and his team have developed a new protein that binds to the main surface protein of SARS-CoV-2, known as the spike protein, preventing it from interacting with receptors on human cells, known as ACE-2, and replicating further.   

"It's through the communication, or the binding of the spike protein from SARS-COV-2 to ACE-2, that this virus can actually get into our cells," he said. 

"We are making a protein that comes in and bonds to the spike protein, and therefore doesn't allow the spike protein to interact with the ACE-2."

'Very challenging work'

From millions of possible combinations, the team's supercomputer figured out the precise protein sequences necessary for the job. Then the lab work began to synthesize the necessary peptide blockers, which attract and bond to the COVID-19 virus, and test them in cell cultures. 

"It is very challenging work and we have good collaborators that are helping us," Golshani said. 

Carleton labs use a super AI computer to build a synthetic protein that is 75 per cent effective in beating the virus. 8:48

Next come clinical tests to prove the results can stand up outside a lab setting.

With enough funding and support, Golshani said he expects to see the protein in action in the next year.

"Now we feel good that this protein is actually doing something," he said. "It's something fantastic, and it's looking pretty good. Surprisingly good."

With files from CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning.

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