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Halo Therapeutics Ltd and Oracle: Partnership against COVID

2022 looks bright for research

Even during the strange time warp that has been the COVID-19 pandemic, opening a new calendar to a clean page headed “January” stirs the hopeful possibility of fresh starts and exciting changes. For me, a new year invites reflections on what might be new, different, or better in the coming days and months, and in my professional life, thinking about the future of research is a given. Here are my predictions for the things we are most likely to see in research in 2022.

Faster commercialization of research outputs, especially in biosciences

A global pandemic has a way of changing our priorities, and in 2022, I believe the commercialization of research findings will happen at a faster pace. This will be in part driven by cloud computing; in part driven by the global need for solutions to new and emerging problems; and in part driven by changing economic realities for research institutions. These institutions will now have to find new revenue sources in light of shifting federal funding for education and changing student demographics.

I expect this will be especially true for biomedical research, where the overarching needs to protect and preserve life, sustain and support economies, and ensure the continued supply of goods and services of all types. And over the course of the pandemic, this has caused us to move faster and re-evaluate our balance points between risk and return when it comes to treatments and vaccines. The development, testing and application of at least half a dozen COVID vaccines in 18 months is unprecedented. We have seen that the mechanisms to evaluate and approve the safety and efficacy of drugs can move very quickly when necessary, and that vaccine development need not take an entire decade or more.

In large part, this new efficiency has been made possible by cloud computing and artificial intelligence. Resources like Oracle Open Data put critical data sources closer to compute resources. Viruses and pharmaceutical compounds can be seen, modeled and explored at a molecular level more quickly than ever before, and their interactions simulated and tested in silico in hours or days instead of months or years. While this cannot entirely replace in vivo testing, it significantly shortens the time between theoretical construct and clinical trial.

It also means that research ideas can become commercial products much more quickly, and Halo Pharmaceuticals, helmed by Dr. Imre Berger, is one such example. Working with Oracle for Research and research collaborators across disciplines and continents, the University of Bristol-based Berger-Schaffitzel labs used Oracle Cloud to discover a druggable pocket on the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 that could be locked by linoleic acid, rendering the virus non-infectious. The initial research was published in Science in November 2020, and by January 2021, startup Halo Therapeutics Ltd had launched, received seed funding, and with Berger at the helm as co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer, was moving toward clinical testing of an antiviral treatment for COVID-19 based on the 2020 research. Halo Therapeutics recently joined Oracle for Startups, moving easily from cloud-based research data to commercial environment.

While this is just one example, I believe we will see a lot more of this type of research-to-product innovation in 2022.

Cross-disciplinary, cross-institutional research collaborations expand and deepen

Though one has to look hard to find them, the pandemic has had some positive effects. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the forced shut down of labs resulted in movement away from equating graduate student quality with the number of hours spent at the lab bench. Though everyone is now suffering from “Zoom fatigue,” researchers have learned that they can, in fact, work together and learn from each other via videoconference. And, the need to find solutions to the COVID-19 problem quickly has created a new open-mindedness toward preprint research publications and an increased sharing of hypotheses, data, and successful and unsuccessful results. Though not everyone will agree with me, I believe these are positive developments that have the potential to challenge the confirmation bias inherent in peer-reviewed research while eliminating the inefficiency and wasted expense of different scientists repeating the same failed experiments.

Most importantly, though, these types of wide-reaching collaborations can yield exciting research outcomes. A two continent, cross-disciplinary, cross-institutional academic and industry-expert research team led by Dr. Rommie Amaro of the University of California at San Diego, was able to work together in real time to prove the airborne transmissibility of COVID-19 using Oracle Cloud and the Summit Supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Their work was recognized by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) in November 2021, when they were named a finalist for the Gordon Bell Special Prize for High Performance Computing-Based COVID Research.

I foresee a new openness toward virtual collaboration and cloud computing to enable the real-time sharing of data and simulations, leading to more of these types of international, cross-disciplinary research teams in 2022.

Researcher diversity continues to be a challenge

Even as collaboration increases, special attention must be paid to the makeup of research teams. Put simply, research suffers from a problem with diversity, and despite increasing attention on the subject, that is unlikely to change significantly in 2022. Most populations outside of white men have always been underrepresented in research, including women, racial and ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, and socioeconomically disadvantaged populations. In part, this is because the path to becoming a researcher is long, arduous, and expensive, with years of schooling, grueling hours, and poorly paying postdoc jobs as mandatory prerequisites. Gender stereotypes play a role. Bias in the peer review process creates further challenges for job placement and advancement. While many organizations, like the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) for example, are laudably directly addressing both conscious and unconscious bias in peer review, cultural change can be slow and difficult.  There can be a perceived tension between increasing diversity and maintaining quality and integrity, as shown by this COPE study.

The very real obstacles to increasing diversity in research will not be reduced by the realities wrought by the pandemic. With the advent of extended shut-downs, more women took on greater caregiving burdens, stepping back from their jobs – including Ph.D. programs and research careers – to care for children and elders. Women’s comparative scholarly productivity has suffered over the course of the pandemic, especially when looking at research publications with women as first authors. Even before the pandemic, underrepresentation of graduate students of color was problematic, and Covid-19 amplified existing inequalities in access to resources and home and family obligations. With the myriad other challenges that the research community will have to address in returning to a post-COVID “new normal,” it will be especially important to accelerate diversity programs and goals in 2022.

Appetites for research that isn’t COVID-focused will increase

Although COVID might not yet be done with the world, I am confident the world is ready to be done with COVID. While we have been rightfully engrossed in spike proteins and virus variants, other big questions and problems have persisted: climate change, social and economic upheavals, information security, elder care, autonomous vehicles, space exploration and our place in the universe. After all, how welcome was the successful launch of the Webb telescope in an otherwise gloomy December? I don’t think this shift in attention will see a shift in research funding – even over the course of the pandemic, the disciplinary distribution of formal federal research funding has remained remarkably consistent since 1970. But, as long as the pandemic continues on its current path, I expect that Ph.D. programs that didn’t accept new cohorts in the fall of 2021 will likely take new students in 2022, and public interest in other types of research and research outcomes will steadily grow over the course of the year. Watch especially for research in digital agriculture powered by cloud computing, climate and sustainability, and socioeconomics.

Research computing innovation accelerates and diversifies

I’ll put it on the record: 2022 will not be the year that quantum computing becomes mainstream. However, as researchers across all disciplines increase their use of computational methods, and seek and consume more digital data, research computing innovations will abound. New research data platforms and services will become more widely available, the professionalization of research software engineering will expand, and integrated edge computing like Oracle’s Roving Edge Infrastructure will enable more research data collection and analysis, from the deepest reaches of the ocean, to agricultural fields, to autonomous vehicles and beyond. More AI will be used to analyze this data, driving new innovations in training data sets and algorithms. As research and every other industry demand increasing amounts of compute, more attention will be paid to green computing and green data centers. I hope other companies will follow Oracle’s lead in committing to a clean cloud, and to the use of renewable energy and sustainability.

I’m admittedly an optimist by nature, and on balance, 2022 looks bright for research and researchers. With more robust collaboration opportunities and an accelerated pathway from lab bench to startup, backed by new innovations in computing, the coming year should mark a pivot from COVID-dominated work to an even better “new normal.”

Oracle for Research is on a mission to support academic and institutional researchers in all aspects of discovery. We’ve made it simple for them to host, store and analyze their data with our cloud infrastructure solutions, so they can focus on their research first. By powering research and innovation with Oracle Cloud, we help researchers change the world for good.