Using nature to beat COVID-19

STEM

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — Whittling 50,000 down to 125 sounds pretty daunting, especially when you’re talking about analyzing chemical compounds. Researchers are taking that first number of naturally occurring compounds and finding which of them have an effect on the COVID-19 virus.

In this case, the original big number became the promising 125. “We have been looking at what chemicals out there in nature in plants, for instance, could be used to help us kill the virus or cure the virus,” said Dr. Jerome Baudry, the leader of the effort at the Baudry Lab at UAH.

Ultimately the Baudry Lab in partnership with researchers at the University of Mississippi, will be testing some 400,000 naturally occurring compounds. The first tests were done in just days, and there is a good reason for that.

“Ten years ago we probably would have been able to do it, but it would have taken months and we were able to do it in a few days thanks to this supercomputer that we’ve had at our disposal,” said Dr. Baudry.

The Hewlett Packard Cray “Sentinel” super computer is located in Texas. It made it possible to test the 50,000 compounds in multiple ways against proteins in the virus. The goal was find which compounds inhibited the virus from doing what it wants to do. We’re finding a way to use today’s technology, and do something special.

“Link it to this very old and ancestral knowledge of humanity about what plants exist, and what they do. Will they kill you? Will they save you,” said Dr. Baudry.

It’s the second question that is most on the mind of Dr. Baudry and all the people helping with this project. As the compounds are tested, the ones that appear to have an effect on the the virus will be sent to lab and tested on live virus. Make no mistake, this is a project that isn’t looking for help years from now.

“If we are really efficient, I would say within a year, probably a year is a safe optimistic, but safe estimate. It may take more than that. Normally it takes more than ten years to find a drug. We have to cut that down by an order of magnitude, and we think we can.” said Dr. Jerome Baudry.

So, the first results are in, and everyone is excited, but the work is not nearly over. No one is sure which plants, fungi, or even bacteria will provide the magic compound. Dr. Baudry said it may very well be a combination, something like the combination of drugs that fight HIV and AIDS.

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