Microsoft lends petaflops to ImmunityBio's coronavirus protein modeling efforts

NantWorks’ ImmunityBio has begun a supercomputing collaboration with Microsoft to map out the spike protein of the novel coronavirus—the means it uses to pry its way into and infect human cells.

Previous digital blueprints of the protein have already been provided to the research community by the National Institutes of Health and the University of Texas, with the use of cryo-electron microscopes. ImmunityBio and Microsoft plan to provide much deeper detail by modeling the molecular dynamics and interactions of the virus’ components.

To do so, they’ll harness 24 petaflops of computing power on the Azure cloud platform—or two-dozen quadrillion operations per second—to simulate the atom-level binding processes between the coronavirus’ protruding spike and the ACE-2 receptor found on the cells lining the nose, airway and lungs.

The ultimate goal is to provide data to help fuel the development of vaccines or antibody therapies that could block the virus from invading new cells and multiplying in large numbers.

“The preclinical process of finding and selecting a target for a traditional therapy can take years, which we don’t have in our fight against the coronavirus,” Patrick Soon-Shiong, chairman and CEO of ImmunityBio.

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“Structures of this complex are available but understanding how the two proteins dynamically interact is critical to targeting it,” Soon-Shiong added. “The involvement of Microsoft and its abundant computing infrastructure will bolster our drug discovery and development progress by our computer scientists and molecular modelers towards entering an optimal therapeutic candidate in clinical trials this year.”

Both ImmunityBio and Microsoft are donating their computing power and algorithms to the effort, the companies said in a statement. That includes a high-performance Azure cluster of 1,250 NVIDIA GPUs, as well as 320 ImmunityBio GPUs previously dedicated to the molecular modeling of proteins, antibodies, antivirals and small molecule drugs for diseases such as HIV and influenza. 

“Our joint efforts between Microsoft and ImmunityBio bring together an incredible amount of computing power to help create models for researchers working on vaccines and therapeutics,” said James Weinstein, senior vice president at Microsoft Healthcare. “We are pleased to support ImmunityBio and NantWorks to jointly find a path to end this pandemic.”