A supercomputer analysed COVID-19, here’s what it found

Second fastest supercomputer in the world uncovers new theory about how the coronavirus impacts the body.

To understand exactly how COVID-19 attacks the body in so many different ways and causes numerous symptoms, a supercomputer known as Summit crunched data on 40 000 genes from 17 000 genetic samples at the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). The nation’s fastest supercomputer performs 200 quadrillion calculations per second, but still took a week to analyse 2.5 billion genetic combinations.

Can fascinating new theory explain the many facets of COVID-19?

A team of researchers at ORNL compared the genes from the lung fluid of 9 COVID-19 patients with 40 samples from healthy people. The results were published in ‘eLife’. Summit revealed the bradykinin hypothesis, a new theory about how COVID-19 affects the body. The hypothesis helps to explain many aspects of COVID-19, including some unusual symptoms. “This is one of those rare times where you can really tie everything back to a eureka moment,” lead researcher and ORNL chief scientist Daniel Jacobson commented in a news release. “I was looking at data, and I suddenly saw some very distinct patterns happening in the pathways of the renin-angiotensin and bradykinin systems. That led us to do a deep dive of the gene families of the blood pressure regulatory system.” Renin-angiotensin and bradykinin systems control the body’s blood pressure and fluid balance. The research team observed that there was an increased expression of enzymes that trigger the production of bradykinin in COVID-19 patients. In contrast, there were less such enzymes that break bradykinin down. Plenty of enzymes in the patients’ lungs that can trigger bradykinins and few enzymes that can break it down are perfect conditions for a bradykinin storm. This enables fluid to build up around the lungs.

Fighting COVID-19, powered by supercomputing

The researchers discovered similar behaviour in the lungs with a substance known as hyaluronic acid. “When the lungs end up with an excess of hyaluronic acid in them, it’s like trying to breathe through Jell-O,” explained Dr Jacobson. “It reaches a point where regardless of how much oxygen you pump in, it doesn’t matter, because the alveoli in the lungs are filled with this hydrogel. With this excess of hyaluronic acid, any water leaking out of the blood vessels due to bradykinin will soak up this structure and the lungs become like a water balloon.” If this is happening in the lungs, they theorise it could also be taking place in other parts of the body. “If we can block this pathogenesis [how disease begins or develops] in severe patients, we can keep the human response from going overboard and give their immune system time to fight off the virus so they can recover,” Dr Jacobson added. If the theory holds true, there’s optimism that over 10 existing drugs could be repurposed to treat COVID-19 patients. Summit, whose feat would probably have taken months with desktop computers, won’t cure COVID-19. However, an interesting new theory has emerged thanks to its speedy gene analysis that may significantly lessen patients’ suffering and possibly save lives.