With millions of people left feeling helpless as COVID-19 sweeps across the U.S. and the rest of the planet, there is one way in which absolutely anyone can help fight the pandemic -- all you need is a computer and an Internet connection.
"The more donors that participate, the more science we're able to do."
The Folding@home project allows members of the public to contribute a portion of their computing power to a gigantic virtual network which has mushroomed over the past month to become the most powerful supercomputer on the planet.
As of April 6, more than one million people across the globe have donated some of their home computing resources to the project. Combined, this gives Folding@home processing powers that dwarf even NASA and IBM's most powerful devices. To join, all you have to do is go to this website and click 'Download Now' to load the Folding@home software on your computer. This runs in the background, and only adds your unused computing power to the project, so it will not drain resources from tasks you're trying to do.
"It's totally crazy," said Vincent Voelz, associate professor of chemistry at Temple University, Philadelphia, and one of the scientists leading the project. "A month ago, we had around 30,000 to 40,000 participants. And then last week, it rose up 400,000 and now we've hit a million. But the more donors that participate, the more science we're able to do."
Voelz and the other scientists behind Folding@home are using these vast resources to model the ever-changing shapes of the coronavirus's proteins, in the hopes of identifying vulnerabilities or 'pockets' in its structure that can be targeted with new drugs.
One of the reasons it's difficult to find treatments for viruses like COVID-19 and Ebola is because the proteins, the innate building blocks of the viral structure, have notoriously smooth surfaces, making it hard for drugs to bind to them.
But viral proteins don't stay still. They are constantly evolving and changing shape as the atoms within push and pull against each other. Having a supercomputer enables scientists to simulate all these different shapes, revealing potential weaknesses which were not immediately visible. And the more powerful the supercomputer, the faster these simulations can happen.
"Simulating these protein motions also enables us to answer basic questions such as what makes this new coronavirus strain different from previous strains," said Voelz. "Is there something about the dynamics of these proteins that makes it more virulent?"
Finding a genuinely novel drug for COVID-19 is particularly critical.
Once they have identified suitable pockets within the proteins of COVID-19, the Folding@home scientists can then take the many compounds being identified by chemists around the world as potential drugs, and try to predict which ones will stand the best chance of binding to those pockets and inhibiting the virus's ability to invade and take over human cells.
"We have so much bandwidth now with Folding@home that we really think we can make a dent with screening these, and prioritizing which compounds are then going to get experimentally tested," said Voeltz.
The team are particularly hopeful they can succeed, having already used the supercomputer to identify a new vulnerability in the Ebola virus, which could go on to yield a new treatment for the disease.
Finding a genuinely novel drug for COVID-19 is particularly critical. While researchers are also looking at repurposing existing medications, like the antimalarials Hydroxychloroquine and Chloroquine (which have just been approved by the FDA for emergency use in coronavirus patients), concerns remain about the safety of these treatments. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic recently warned that the use of these drugs could have the side effect of inducing heart problems and run the risk of sudden cardiac arrest.
But with the death toll increasing by the day, speed is of the essence. Voelz explains that the scientific community has been left playing catch-up, because a drug was never actually developed for the original SARS outbreak in the early 2000s. The enormous computational power of the Folding@home project has the potential to allow scientists to quickly answer some of the key questions needed to get a new treatment into the pipeline.
"We don't have a SARS drug for whatever reason," said Voelz. "So the missing ingredient really, is the basic science to reveal possible drug targets and then the pharma can take that information and do the engineering work and optimizing and clinically testing drugs. But we now have a lot of basic science going on in response to this pandemic."
At age 52, Glen Rouse suffered from arm weakness and a lot of muscle twitches. “I first thought something was wrong when I could not throw a 50-pound bag of dog food over the tailgate of my truck—something I use to do effortlessly,” said the 54-year-old resident of Anderson, California, about three hours north of San Francisco.
In August, Rouse retired as a forester for a private timber company, a job he had held for 31 years. The impetus: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive neuromuscular disease that is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after the New York Yankees’ first baseman who succumbed to it less than a month shy of his 38th birthday in 1941. ALS eventually robs an individual of the ability to talk, walk, chew, swallow and breathe.
Rouse is now dependent on ventilation through a nasal mask and uses a powerchair to get around. “I can no longer walk or use my arms very well,” he said. “I can still move my wrists and fingers. I can also transfer from my chair to the toilet if I have two of my friends help me.”
It’s “shocking” that modern medicine has very little to offer to people with this devastating condition, Rouse said. But there is hope on the horizon. Yesterday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Relyvrio, a drug made up of two parts, sodium phenylbutyrate and taurursodiol, to treat patients with ALS.
“This approval provides another important treatment option for ALS, a life-threatening disease that currently has no cure,” said Billy Dunn, director of the Office of Neuroscience in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a statement. “The FDA remains committed to facilitating the development of additional ALS treatments.”
Until this point, the FDA had approved only two other medications—Riluzole (rilutek) in 1995 and Radicava (edaravone) in 2017—to extend life in patients with ALS, which typically kills within two to five years after diagnosis. That’s why earlier this week, Rouse was optimistic about the FDA’s likely approval of a controversial new drug for ALS.
When Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months, said Richard Bedlak, director of the Duke ALS Clinic. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
“The whole ALS community is extremely excited about it,” he said the day before Relyvrio’s expected approval. “We are very hopeful. We’re on pins and needles.”
A study of 137 ALS patients did not result in “substantial evidence” that Relyvrio was effective, the agency’s Peripheral and Central Nervous System Drugs Advisory Committee concluded in March. However, after some persuasion from FDA officials, patients and their families, the committee met again and decided to recommend approving the drug.
In January 2019, following an ALS diagnosis at age 58 in October the previous year, Jeff Sarnacki, of Chester, Maryland, was accepted into a trial for Relyvrio. “Because of the trial, we did experience hope and a greater sense of help than had we not had that opportunity,” said Juliet Taylor, his wife and caregiver. They both believed the drug “worked for him in giving him more time.”
In June 2019, Sarnacki chose an open-label extension, offered to patients by drug researchers after a study ends, and took the active drug until he died peacefully at home under hospice care in May 2020, five days after his 60th birthday. A retired agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who later worked as a security consultant, Sarnacki lived about 19 months after diagnosis, which is shorter than the typical prognosis.
His symptoms began with leg cramps in fall 2017 and foot drop in early 2018. A feeding tube was placed in 2019, as it became necessary early in his illness, Taylor said. He also took Radicava and Riluzole, the two previously approved drugs, for his ALS. “We were both incredulous that, so many years after Lou Gehrig’s own diagnosis, there were so few treatments available,” she said.
The dearth of successful treatments for ALS is “certainly not for lack of trying,” said Karen Raley Steffens, a registered nurse and ALS support services coordinator at the Les Turner ALS Foundation in Skokie, Ill. “There are thousands of researchers and scientists all over the world working tirelessly to try to develop treatments for ALS.”
Unfortunately, she added, research takes time and exorbitant amounts of funding, while bureaucratic challenges persist. The rare disease also manifests and progresses in many different ways, so many treatments are needed.
As of 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 31,000 people in the U.S. live with ALS, and an average of 5,000 people are newly diagnosed every year. It is slightly more common in men than women. Most people are diagnosed between the ages of 55 and 75.
Most cases of ALS are sporadic, meaning that doctors don’t know the cause. There is about a one-year interval between symptom onset and an ALS diagnosis for most patients, so many motor neurons are lost by the time individuals can enroll in a clinical trial, said Richard Bedlack, professor of neurology and director of the Duke ALS Clinic in Durham, North Carolina.
Bedlack found the new drug, Relyvrio, to be “very promising,” which is why he testified to the FDA in favor of approval. (He’s a consultant and disease state speaker for multiple companies including Amylyx, manufacturer of Relyvrio.)
The “drug has different mechanisms of action than the currently approved treatments,” Bedlack said. He added that, when Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
T. Scott Diesing, a neurohospitalist and director of general neurology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, said he hopes the drug is “as good as people anticipated it should be, because there are not too many options for these patients.”
"FDA went out on a limb in approving Relyvrio based on limited results from a small trial while a larger study remains in progress," said Florian P. Thomas, co-director of the ALS Center at Hackensack University Medical Center and the Meridian School of Medicine. "While it is definitely promising, clearly, the last word on this drug has not been spoken."
So far, Rouse's voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him.
ALS is 100 percent fatal, with some patients dying as soon as a year after diagnosis. A few have lasted as long as 15 years, but those are the exceptions, Diesing said.
“If this drug can provide even months of additional life, or would maintain quality of life, that’s a big deal,” he noted, adding that “the patients are saying, ‘I know it’s not proven conclusively, but what do we have to lose?’ So, they would like to try it while additional studies are ongoing.” The drug has already been conditionally approved in Canada.
As his disease progresses, Rouse hopes to get a speech-to-text voice-generating computer that he can control with his eyes. So far, his voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him. He works at I AM ALS, a patient-led community, and six of his friends have already died of the disease.
“Every time I lose a friend to ALS, I grieve and am sad but I resolve myself to keep working harder for them, myself and others,” Rouse said. “People living with ALS find great purpose in life advocating and trying to make a difference.”
The Friday Five covers important stories in health and science research that you may have missed - usually over the previous week, but today's episode is a lookback on important studies over the month of September.
Most recently, on September 27, pharmaceuticals Biogen and Eisai announced that a clinical trial showed their drug, lecanemab, can slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend and the new month.
This Friday Five episode covers the following studies published and announced over the past month:
- A new drug is shown to slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease
- The need for speed if you want to reduce your risk of dementia
- How to refreeze the north and south poles
- Ancient wisdom about Neti pots could pay off for Covid
- Two women, one man and a baby