As long as humans inhabit the earth, viruses will be part of life, and learning how to defend against novel coronaviruses will be vital for global health. That’s where a spin-out from the University of Bristol is making major strides by exploring how best to treat the virus as an ongoing problem by creating innovative, new antivirals.
Professor Imre Berger and his University of Bristol colleagues at their startup Halo Therapeutics are taking the long view on coronavirus. Aided by a combination of cloud computing and scientific ingenuity, they are changing how we fight COVID-19 and its variants with innovations such as a nasal spray used at the earliest stages of infection.
What started in the lab as a surprise discovery has now developed into a biotech startup that is at the leading edge of advancements in health and life sciences.
DISCOVERY OF A “POCKET” PROVIDES GAME-CHANGING INSIGHTS
An international team led by Professor Berger from the Max Planck Bristol Centre for Minimal Biology, University of Bristol, and Professor Christiane Berger Schaffitzel from Bristol’s School of Biochemistry, focused their work on the way COVID-19 is triggered by its spike protein. In the lab, they used electron cryo-microscopy (cryoEM) to analyze the SARS-CoV-2 spike at near atomic resolution and develop a 3D model of the spike protein.
Schaffitzel and Berger discovered a pocket in the protein that could be closed and opened, which in closed form could render the virus harmless. The spike’s pocket appeared to bind to linoleic acid, a key molecule in the body that regulates inflammation and immune response. Much like a door or lock, the open form allows the virus to replicate and spread, while closed renders the virus non-infectious. They knew they had a game-changing discovery on their hands.
“We had this pocket, which is like a lock, and it opened entirely novel ways for defense. And we could apply this lock to arrest the virus in a noninfectious form and prevent it from penetrating cells in the nose, throat, and lungs,” said Berger.
Their work was made by possible by an Oracle for Research grant, providing the research team with access to Oracle Cloud Infrastructure‘s high-performance cloud computing capabilities to process very large data sets from the university’s powerful cryo-electron microscope, which allowed the scientists to create a high-resolution, 3D model to visualize and study the spike protein’s molecular composition.
Professor Berger explained how building a model from thousands of movies can be done in a matter of hours by ‘blasting it on the cloud,’ instead of piecing individual frames together, which can take months. “Speed is everything in research, and our colleagues at Oracle made things happen at an incredible pace,” he said.
Researchers across the globe are using powerful cloud computing services, like high-performance computing, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, to advance scientific research from drug discovery to cellular biology to climate change. That is allowing researchers to get to discoveries much faster than ever possible, going from years and months down to weeks and days.
“We’re dealing with literally terabytes worth of data, and in order to piece it all together, we needed massive computation,” said Berger. “What used to take weeks and months is happening within hours and days. And the Oracle platform is built to be research-friendly and cost-effective so we can focus 100% on our research.”
The availability of these powerful cloud computing resources, along with other global socioeconomic factors, are fueling the increasingly growing research-to-commercialization pipeline. Cloud service providers like Oracle are stepping in to help bridge the gap.
FROM THE LAB TO HALO THERAPEUTICS
Berger and team’s initial research was published in Science in November 2020, and by January 2021, they had translated their research into a range of therapeutic antiviral products and launched Halo Therapeutics to bring them to market. With Berger at the helm as co-founder and chief strategy officer, and Schaffitzel as CTO, Halo Therapeutics is currently in clinical trials with an antiviral nasal spray to target the ‘hot zone,’ where the virus invades the body.
Halo Therapeutics’s antivirals, pending approval, could be used by patients globally at the first sign of COVID-19 symptoms, or when they have been in contact with the virus, preventing the virus from taking hold and stopping further transmission. The clinical trial process can take many months, and there’s no guarantee of an approval. The team, however, is encouraged by the lab studies, including work that suggests such antivirals would be effective against all known pathogenic coronavirus strains, including the highly contagious current variants.
“Our vision is that at the first sign of the disease, whether you come into contact with someone who has COVID-19, or you have early symptoms, you would self-medicate at home to stop the virus in its tracks and prevent you from getting ill,” says Berger.
COMMERCIALIZATION OF RESEARCH CONTINUES TO ACCELERATE
The pandemic underscored the importance and pace of turning research into commercial products. Like Berger and his spin-out Halo Therapeutics, technological advancements like high-performance computing and AI and machine learning methods are enabling more researchers to massively speed up their discoveries. Additionally, the global need for solutions and the changing economic realities for research institutions are adding to this building pipeline. These factors are fueling the urgency of commercialization and revealing the need for more support and resources to bridge innovation from research to commercialization.
“Halo Therapeutics is an excellent example of research-to-product innovation, and we are going to see a much faster commercialization of research outputs like Halo,” said Alison Derbenwick Miller, vice president and global head of Oracle for Research. “Oracle is building a platform tailored to the needs of researchers—from lab to commercialization—to enable speed of discovery with powerful cloud computing resources, access to data, and the latest AI and ML services.
As advancements in science and cloud computing continue to progress together, experts say partnerships between researchers and cloud service providers, like Oracle, will become vital to find solutions to some of the world’s most urgent needs.