University researcher uses virtual reality to fight COVID-19
SUDBURY -- Researchers from around the world have been working non-stop, using a variety of tools, to come up with a treatment for COVID-19. Laurentian University's Stefan Siemann has those means at his fingertips.
He’s just one of several researchers that answered a call from the United Kingdom to study the virus using virtual reality.
"What I'm doing is I've shifted my focus from typical enzymology, so studying enzymes and proteins, to something particular related to COVID, to the new virus" said Siemann.
They're looking at potential molecular targets that could block a protein that is made by the COVID virus.
"You have to kind of imagine the virus itself, and related viruses like the AIDS virus and SARS virus, they make this giant protein and it's really non-functional, but what this protein that we're looking at does is it chops it into pieces and these pieces are absolutely vital to replication of the virus, so if you could block that from working, this particular protein that chops, then the virus wouldn't replicate so it's a very attractive drug targeted that's already been exploited with AIDS treatments and SARS treatments as well," said Siemann.
The hope is that something like this could work with the new coronavirus.
He anticipates that it could take another year for a vaccine to emerge, this is just providing researchers with additional avenues to take.
"If you can come up with pharmaceuticals that can bind and block this one protein from functioning, the virus is not replicating and eventually your immune system will pick up and eventually get rid of the virus."
The program he's been using has allowed him to immerse himself into the protein world, to visualize the cavity on COVID-19 they are trying to fill.
"It's like building lego with little fragments and pieces and block this big cavity and so when you do that, the protein will not work and it will not do the chopping so virtual reality allows you to dive right in," said Siemann.
He first became aware of the technology more than a year ago. Since then, he's introduced it into his course load and has been showing it to students.
"I think this is where education will go for chemistry, bio-chemistry and probably other disciplines," he said. "In this case you even collaborate with people around the world so they can enter the same virtual reality world where you can talk to them, interact with them and work on the protein together."
"I don't think it's going to be a quick fix, so this is kind of exploratory, someone still has to make these types of molecules so there's organic chemists involved, so what we're doing is coming up with ideas and uploading our ideas onto a central server in the UK. They're going to look at what we propose and then actually have to make those types of molecules and that's a major challenge in some cases," he said.
"So it's a good step, it's a step in the right direction but it'll take time, it's not a quick fix by any means," said Siemanns.
Any sort of medication would have to be synthesized, tested and then approved before it could be used on the market.
"The hope is to find something that's already out there like a drug or something that was explored as a drug, maybe something that was approved that might work against the virus, that would be quick," he said.
Siemann's efforts have been just one of several Laurentian faculty have been undertaking since the campus was shut down.
Another professor has also been making hand sanitizer for the Greater Sudbury Police Service.
Laurentian University President Robert Hache adds they've been making every effort to continue research projects including those aimed at COVID-19.