Scientists using supercomputer to study common cold virus

By David Ferguson
Tuesday, July 17, 2012 11:44 EDT
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Rhinovirus dividing via screen cap
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Scientists in Australia are using the unprecedented power of a new supercomputer to model the workings and behavior of the common cold, a virus known as rhinovirus, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. It has long been a medical truism that curing the common cold is an impossibility, but recent studies of how the virus attaches to cells and how it replicates within the body have brought scientists to a spectacular new understanding of the virus, paving the way for new drugs and potentially life-saving cures.

Professor Michael Parker, deputy director of St Vincent’s Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne said that his department has been working hand in hand with the company Biota Holdings to unlock the secrets of rhinovirus, using St. Vincent’s powerful electron microscope to view it and the supercomputer to simulate and track its movements.

“If you consider a virus as an organism, this is the first simulation of a whole organism, which is pretty exciting,” he said, “No one has been able to do this before. It helps us understand how the virus works.”

Rhinovirus is structurally similar to the virus that causes polio and to enterovirus, which causes stomach flu. Parker told the Herald that Biota’s new drug is currently in testing, but that all of the new information gained from the study will be made available to the public.

“For some people, it could be the difference between life and death,” he said. Colds are generally non-lethal in healthy adults, but older people, people with asthma or immune disorders and some small children can be particularly vulnerable to rhinovirus, spurring the need for new treatments.

The supercomputer is made up of two IBM Blue Gene machines, supercomputers that are among the most powerful ever produced by mankind. These computers are being used not only to study viruses and their reproduction and spread, but also quantum physics, the behavior of financial markets and climate modeling.

Watch video about this story, embedded via the Sydney Morning Herald, below:

David Ferguson
David Ferguson
David Ferguson is an editor at Raw Story. He was previously writer and radio producer in Athens, Georgia, hosting two shows for Georgia Public Broadcasting and blogging at Firedoglake.com and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book.
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