Coronavirus: Using European supercomputing, EU-funded research project announces promising results for potential treatment*

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This article is brought to you in association with the European Commission.


EU-funded consortium Exscalate4CoV has announced that an already registered generic drug used to treat osteoporosis, Raloxifene, could be an effective treatment for COVID-19 patients with mildly symptomatic infection. The consortium is using an EU-backed supercomputing platform, one of the world’s most powerful, to check the potential impact of known molecules against the genomic structure of coronavirus. This is one of many examples of how the EU’s research and innovation programme Horizon 2020 is bringing together the best of European researchers, pharmaceutical companies, technologies and research infrastructures to contribute to defeating the virus.

Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, said: ”Today, we need science more than ever. Since January we have mobilised all our efforts to support R&I actors in their respective fields to find solutions and stop the virus. This is why we have provided Exscalate4CoV with €3 million to fund their research, and I welcome the promising results they have achieved.”

Thierry Breton, European Commissioner for the Internal Market, said: “The Exscalate4Cov platform brings innovation to drug discovery in Europe and worldwide. It demonstrates the value of true pan-European cooperation by joining the best capacities Europe has to offer in the fields of biomedical science and high-performance computingWe will continue to mobilise all technologies available, including artificial intelligence, to fight the coronavirus.

Exscalate4CoV, using a unique combination of high performance computing power and AI with biological processing, brings together 18 partners and further 15 associated members. This includes supercomputing centres in Italy, Spain and Germany, large research centres, pharmaceutical companies and biological institutes from across Europe. The platform has around 120 Petaflops computing power, allowing research into the behaviors of molecules with the aim of identifying an effective treatment against coronavirus. The project’s chemical library is constantly growing thanks to agreements with newly associated pharmaceutical companies.

The consortium has already virtually tested 400 000 molecules using its supercomputers. 7 000 molecules were preselected and further tested “in vitro”. Raloxifene emerged as a promising molecule: according to the project, it could be effective in blocking the replication of the virus in cells, and could thus hold up the progression of the disease. Researchers have indicated that its advantages include its high patient tolerability, safety and established toxicological profile.

As a next step, the consortium will be discussing with the European Medicines Agency how to advance to clinical trials to evaluate the new potential use for Raloxifene. If successful, the drug could be quickly made available in high volumes and at low cost.

Background

Using a European supercomputing platform, one of the world’s most powerful, Exscalate4CoV is able to perform in weeks a screening process that with traditional techniques would take many years. In a first step it has so far identified 6 out of 25 different protein models of the novel coronavirus that are constantly evolving, with various mutations received weekly, which are translated into a digital form for use in the next step. The second step is to match the digital structure of coronavirus proteins against the available library of molecules. In the third and final step, the identified molecules undergo several additional biological screening operations in laboratories located in Belgium and Germany to understand how an identified molecule interacts with the virus model and to assess the degree to which it can stop its activity.

In the next phase, the project will enlarge the above tests by considering an extended library of 5 million molecules, out of the 500 billion molecules it disposes. It is expected that further potential molecules will be identified and contribute to an effective overall treatment of the disease.

Exscalate4CoV is one of 18 research projects awarded a total of€48.2 million, from a recent EU emergency call on coronavirus research, to work on preparedness and response to outbreaks, rapid point-of-care diagnostic tests, new treatments and new vaccines. The work of the Exscalate4CoV consortium was made possible by €3 million of emergency EU funding as part of the EU coordinated response to the coronavirus pandemic, and the project has gained support from companies in the pharmaceutical industry who provide it with drug samples via its biology DrugBox open platform.

In the period 2014-2018, the EU has invested more than €600 million in high performance computing from Horizon 2020 and the Connecting Europe Facility. In 2018, the EuroHPC Joint Undertaking was established, a €1 billion joint initiative between the EU and 32 European countries to develop a world class supercomputing ecosystem in Europe.

On 4 May, the Commission pledged €1.4 billion in total during the Coronavirus Global Response pledging event, of which €1 billion comes through Horizon 2020 and is aimed at developing vaccines, new treatments and diagnostic tools to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Since January 2020, the Commission has mobilised a total of €547 million under Horizon 2020 for the fight against coronavirus.

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