News National How virtual reality is being used to help find a cure for the coronavirus
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How virtual reality is being used to help find a cure for the coronavirus

A 3D computer model of the COVID-19 spike protein that latches onto human cells. Photo: CSIRO
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Top Australian data scientists are using virtual reality modelling to study the coronavirus and help fast-track the development of a vaccine.

The global quest to find a cure has been an enormous team effort, with scientists from a range of different backgrounds coming together to offer their expertise.

One of those groups is the Data61 research team at the CSIRO.

Using computer modelling, the researchers have generated a 3D replica of the coronavirus to try to understand how the disease behaves.

Dr Michael Kuiper, team leader of Data61’s molecular and materials modelling group, said there were many different ways to attack the virus and their approach was just one of them.

“If you’re an engineer looking at a machine, you need to figure out how it all fits together,” Dr Kuiper told The New Daily.

“This is the beauty of digital science – it can really help put perspective and interpretation into what’s going on.”

Dr Kuiper’s team has been building models of the coronavirus’s spike protein – the part that latches onto human cells – and simulating them on a computer to analyse them from all angles.

Computer modelling of the coronavirus’s spike protein. Photo: CSIRO

“What virtual reality brings to the table is basically allowing our researchers to interact with these structures and get a much more comprehensive view of them,” he said.

“Experimental work is very expensive and so is developing new drugs, but if I can test it first and have trust in my model then I can tell the chemist, ‘I’ve tried these molecules and this is the best’.

“You can speed up a lot of development time if you know what you’re looking at.”

Master of disguise

The goal of the coronavirus is to survive, and that means infecting as many people as possible.

To do this, part of the disease’s protein is disguised as a human cell to try to trick our immune systems.

“It’s disguising itself from the immune system like a camouflage, which is why developing a vaccine has been so tricky because the coronavirus is covering itself up,” Dr Kuiper said.

“The thing about the immune system is, you don’t want to attack yourself, so it makes itself look more like a human cell.”

As part of their mission to help find a cure, Dr Kuiper’s team has also been analysing how the coronavirus is changing as it spreads around the world.

“When a protein has a certain shape, that’s when the immune system recognises it,” he said.

“But when it mutates, it is slightly different so the immune system may not recognise it the second time around.

“It has lots of components – it’s a more complicated virus than others – but any of them could be an achilles’ heel where you could find a drug that could inhibit one of those proteins.”