IBM and Cleveland Clinic today unveiled the first quantum computer dedicated solely to research in health care and life sciences — a sleek cube of glass and metal that’s likely to generate sci-fi movie concepts for years to come.
Researchers hope IBM Quantum System One will eventually generate new biomedical discoveries as well.
“This includes quantum machine learning to design more efficient immunotherapies and designing quantum-accelerated models to predict drug combinations,” Jeanette Garcia, senior research manager of quantum computational science at IBM, said in an emailed statement.
The potential applications extend beyond medical research.
Researchers at the University of Washington have discovered how to create peptide molecules that can slip through membranes to enter cells — and they’ve also created a company to take advantage of the discovery for drug development.
“This new ability to design membrane-permeable peptides with high structural accuracy opens the door to a new class of medicines that combine the advantages of traditional small-molecule drugs and larger protein therapeutics,” senior study author David Baker, a biochemist at the University of Washington School of Medicine, said in a news release.
Small-molecule drugs — for example, aspirin — are small enough to slip through cell membranes to do their work. Protein therapeutics — for example, monoclonal antibodies — can target more complex ailments, but the protein molecules are typically too big to wedge their way through lipid-based cell walls.
Peptide drugs are made from the same building blocks as protein, and offer many of the advantages of protein-based drugs. They can bind protein targets in the body more precisely than small-molecule drugs, promising fewer side effects.
“We know that peptides can be excellent medicines, but a big problem is that they don’t get into cells,” said study lead author Gaurav Bhardwaj, an assistant professor of medicinal chemistry at the UW School of Pharmacy. “There are a lot of great drug targets inside our cells, and if we can get in there, that space opens up.”
The newly reported experiments used a couple of molecular design techniques to create types of peptide molecules that can get into cells more easily.
SpaceX launched a Dragon cargo capsule to the International Space Station today with more than 7,300 pounds of supplies and science, including an experiment from the University of Washington that takes advantage of zero gravity to study how our kidneys work.
The resupply mission began at 1:29 p.m. ET (10:29 a.m. PT) with liftoff for SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Minutes after launch, the Falcon’s first-stage booster flew itself back to an at-sea touchdown in the Atlantic Ocean, while the Dragon continued its rise to orbit.
Rendezvous with the space station took place on June 5.
Twenty years after the first human genome sequence was published, an international research team has kicked the sequencing game to the next level with a set of 64 reference genomes that reflect much higher resolution and more genetic diversity.
Since the Human Genome Project completed the first draft of its reference genome in 2001, decoding the human genetic code has been transformed from a multibillion-dollar endeavor into a relatively inexpensive commercial service. However, commercial whole-genome sequencing, or WGS, often misses out on crucial variations that can make all the difference when it comes to an individual’s health.
“As a metric, 75% of structural variants that are present in that person’s genome are missed by WGS, but are captured by our long-read phased genome assembly,” University of Washington genome scientist Evan Eichler told me in an email. “Such variants are about three times more likely to cause disease.”
They say that the second vaccine shot for COVID-19 is rougher than the first one — and we’re not just talking about the side effects.
As a newly double-vaccinated member of the 65-and-older set, I can vouch for the claim that the side effects can be felt more acutely the second time around: Back in late January, my first Pfizer-BioNTech shot gave me nothing more than a sore arm. This week’s second shot gave me body aches the day after, as if I had been shoveling snow for hours. (Which, come to think of it, I was … a couple of days earlier.)
Jeffrey Duchin, health officer for Public Health – Seattle & King County, acknowledged that it’s been a tough slog for some folks. “I wish we had more vaccine, and had vaccine for everyone,” he said today during a news briefing.
Trying to get an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccine on the day that eligibility was expanded to new age groups in Washington state would be a familiar experience to anyone who’s tried to get a hot movie ticket, a cheap airfare or season tickets to Kraken hockey games.
I’ve been through all of those trials, and my efforts to work through the online hiccups and fast-disappearing slots are likely to be replicated in the months ahead as efforts to quell the coronavirus pandemic continue to ramp up.
Bottom line? Sharpen your searching skills, don’t wait for an invitation, and pursue multiple options.
Your mileage may vary, of course. I was just one of thousands of regular folks aged 65 and older who joined the search for the vaccine this week.
You may want to put off that big holiday dinner. Don’t have your heart set on sending the kids back to school anytime soon. And if you plan to get on a plane, be sure to wear your mask.
Those are just a few of the nuggets of advice that critical-care physician Vin Gupta and computational biologist Trevor Bedford passed along for getting through this winter in the midst of the persistent coronavirus outbreak.
“We’re definitely not ’rounding the curve,’ ” Gupta said.
Gupta and Bedford delivered a data-rich status report on the pandemic today during a virtual GeekWire Summit session moderated by CNBC technology and health reporter Christina Farr.
The bottom line is that it’s still too early to let your guard down, despite what some politicians might claim.
The good news is that Operation Warp Speed, the multibillion-dollar effort to develop vaccines for COVID-19, is moving ahead at a pace that justifies its name.
The bad news is that despite all that effort, the coronavirus outbreak is still likely to be with us next year — and low- to medium-income countries such as India are likely to be hit particularly hard.
“We’re going to probably see a lot of deaths,” said Lynda Stuart, deputy director for vaccines and human immunobiology at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “It’s going to be a great inequity and tragedy that will unfold.”
Stuart and other experts involved in the vaccine quest laid out their assessment of the road ahead today during the first session of the 2020 GeekWire Summit.
For years, public health officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been playing out scenarios for dealing with pandemics, but the one scenario they didn’t count on was that they’d be hamstrung by their own political leaders.
“I don’t think anybody ever thought that that would happen,” said Maryn McKenna, a veteran reporter on infectious diseases. “And yet, seven months into the pandemic here in the United States, that’s pretty much where we are.”
Such misinformation has taken the form of conspiracy theories about the origins and spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, plus the hype surrounding supposed “miracle” cures and efforts to downplay the seriousness of the outbreak.
Marsha Jones — co-founder and executive director of The Afiya Center, a Texas-based reproductive justice organization — said she’s seen it all before, during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s.
“I didn’t think that I would ever see a disease so politicized as HIV was ever again, because for some reason I thought we learned,” she said.
Like the HIV epidemic, the COVID-19 epidemic is dealing a particularly heavy blow to people “who get the least amount of funding, who get the least amount of recognition, who have the worst care,” Jones said.
And even as the outbreak is raging, disadvantaged communities are struggling with the repercussions of systemic racism and urban unrest. “We’re living in a dual epidemic,” Jones said.
Science is suffering along with society, said Peter Daszak, president of the New York-based EcoHealth Alliance. His group became the focus of controversy early in the pandemic because it helped train Chinese virologists in Wuhan, which was the outbreak’s global epicenter.
The training effort was part of a federally funded program called PREDICT, which aimed to anticipate cross-species viral outbreaks. The Trump administration let the program expire last year, just before the first COVID-19 cases came to light — and EcoHealth Alliance faced heavy criticism largely because of unfounded accusations that the virus was unleashed from the Wuhan virology lab.
“It’s the right wing, it’s QAnon, it’s people spending hours in their basements doing ‘research’ on the internet to dig up stuff that sounds like a conspiracy,” Daszak said. “And of course, with so much online presence, the president not only allows that to happen, but also promotes it, and seems to believe it himself.”
Scientists tend to be uncomfortable about getting into the political fray, but Daszak said inaction may no longer be an option. “During the HIV pandemic, science got political, and scientists got political,” he said. “It’s no good keeping quiet. You’ve got to push back, and push back strong, and tell the truth about what’s going on. … If you keep quiet, you’ve just basically consigned science to the trash heap.”
But politicians aren’t the only ones who can play a role in repairing public policy on pandemics, Daszak said.
“You’re journalists,” he told the online audience. “So get out there and speak the truth, and push back.”
McKenna said it’s crucial for all journalists to be trained to cover the different facets of coronavirus coverage, ranging from biology to business, from epidemiology to education.
“We should rethink the silos within which we exist as journalists … because it’s entirely possible that a science and public health story like the coronavirus pandemic will come in and cut across all those silos, and demonstrate the degree to which we have not trained each other in the mutual knowledge that we all need,” she said.
Daszak said truth-telling shouldn’t be confined to a newsroom setting.
“Go talk to your neighbors and friends,” he said. “And also, you know, the folks with the Trump sign outside their house. Go have a chat with them, see what they think about masks and school openings. Listen to them, and say a couple of things, a couple of facts, nothing heavy, and just let it settle and move away. … We need a societal change in our understanding of things like this pandemic.”
Jones stressed that you don’t need to be a politician — or a journalist, or a public health worker, for that matter — to parry the pandemic.
“The greatest changes don’t necessarily have to happen in the political arena. “There are changes that can happen outside of that, that will inevitably impact what’s happening in the political arena,” she said.
She advised starting with the place where you have the most influence, even if it’s outside the traditional halls of power.
“If that’s at your house, if that’s on your porch, in the park, in the gym — wherever it is that you have the most power, and you can have the most convincing conversation where you’re talking with somebody who can create change, that’s what you do,” Jones said.
Full disclosure: I’m the president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, which is one of the organizers of the series. FiveThirtyEight senior science writer Maggie Koerth, a CASW board member, moderated today’s session.
An international research team led by University of Washington scientists has identified two kinds of “ultrapotent human antibodies” that could go into a drug cocktail for guarding against COVID-19.
UW’s David Veesler and Vir Biotechnology’s Katja Fink are the senior authors of the study published online today by the journal Science, which highlights two monoclonal antibodies known as S2E12 and S2M11. The antibodies were found to block SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, from latching onto molecular receptors on cells in hamsters.
An analysis of the antibodies’ molecular structure determined that they block the virus by gumming up its characteristic “spike” protein, which has been a target for many of the vaccines and therapies under development to fight COVID-19. Some of the researchers behind the newly published study, including Veesler, reported a similarly promising antibody called S309 in May.
Researchers say such antibodies could be combined in a drug cocktail to guard against the virus evolving to evade any single one of the ingredients. A drug that takes advantage of S309’s effect is already being tested in a phase 2/3 clinical trial launched by GlaxoSmithKline and Vir Biotechnology.