Scientists use supercomputers to test HIV treatment

Scientists in London are using networks of supercomputers to test a treatment for HIV.

Scientists in London are using networks of supercomputers to test a treatment for HIV.

The computing method, called the Virtual Physiological Human (VPH), links networks of computers across the world to simulate the internal workings of the human body. It can then be used to simulate the effects of a drug.

Scientists at University College London are using the supercomputing power of the US and UK national grids to test the effectiveness of an HIV drug in blocking a key protein used by the lethal virus.

Peter Coveney, from UCL's department of chemistry, said that although nine drugs are currently available to inhibit the HIV virus, doctors have no way of matching a drug to the unique profile of the virus as it mutates in each patient. Instead, they prescribe a course of drugs and then test whether these are working by analysing the patient's immune response.

A new approach

One of the goals of VPH is for such "trial and error" methods to eventually be replaced by patient-specific treatments tailored to a person's unique genotype.

This study involved a sequence of simulation steps, performed across several supercomputers on the UK's National Grid Service and the US TeraGrid, which took two weeks and used computational power roughly equivalent to that needed to perform a long-range weather forecast.

Coveney said, "This study represents a first step towards the ultimate goal of 'on-demand' medical computing, where doctors could one day 'borrow' supercomputing time from the national grid to make critical decisions on life-saving treatments.

"We have some difficult questions ahead of us, such as how much of our computing resources could be devoted to helping patients and at what price. At present, such simulations - requiring a substantial amount of computing power - might prove costly for the National Health Service, but technological advances and those in the economics of computing would bring costs down."

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