DreamLab | 01 Sep 2020

Covid-19: How your smartphone could speed up the search for treatments

The DreamLab Corona-AI project is using the collective computational power of tens of thousands of smartphones to find ways of treating people stricken with Covid-19. Phase 1 is nearly complete.

Countries around the world may be slowly emerging from their coronavirus lockdowns, but the threat of the global pandemic is far from over. While survivors grapple with long-term complications as they recover, new cases continue to surge and spike daily.

Scientists are researching every possible treatment to fight Covid-19, which is where your smartphone comes in. With Vodafone’s DreamLab app, your phone could dramatically speed up this vitally important work.

Using the Corona-AI project in the DreamLab app, thousands of smartphones collectively undertake complex scientific calculations that would take a desktop PC hundreds of years longer to complete. It’s these calculations that could further scientists’ understanding of Covid-19 and how to treat it.

While potential vaccines against the novel coronavirus have dominated the headlines, preventing people from becoming infected isn’t what Corona-AI is about. Instead, it is looking for ways to treat people after they have contracted the virus – curtailing either the duration or the severity of Covid-19’s effects on their bodies.

Researchers at Imperial College London, who were key in designing the DreamLab app and the Corona-AI project, are focusing on the interactions between the virus and the human body’s own proteins.

It’s these ‘virus-host interactome networks’ that enable the virus to penetrate and take over the cells in our bodies where it can then make more copies of itself. To put it very simply, the more the virus can replicate itself inside a person’s body, the more severe and life-threatening the effects are likely to be.

Corona-AI is looking for ways to disrupt the complex interactions between these protein spikes and our cells, thereby stopping the virus from replicating.

It does this using a form of artificial intelligence (AI). During Phase 1 of the Corona-AI project, – more than 90% complete at the time of publication – the AI is modelling what effects existing drugs and food molecules might have on the genetic profile of Covid-19 in mathematical simulations.

The AI chooses which drugs and foods to examine based on insights from research scientists as well as on its calculations of what it thinks are most likely to succeed.

Supercomputer power

The scale of the job undertaken by Corona-AI is immense. The project is examining thousands of existing drugs and food molecules – examining them all in Phase 1 will take approximately 100 million calculations. This might seem insurmountable, but there are around 140,000 devices completing around 1.3 million calculations every night using DreamLab – that’s about 10 calculations per night per device. DreamLab’s combined smartphone processing power is several times greater than Imperial’s own supercomputer.

Corona-AI Phase 1

total calculations
100 million

140,000 phones crunch

every night
1.3m calculations

DreamLab was originally designed to search for anti-cancer treatments (and you can still choose to devote your smartphone’s processing power to those projects). This background has surprising relevance to the search for Covid-19 treatments. Both cancers and the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19 are extremely resilient and adaptable, so potential treatments that take multiple approaches against the disease generally have higher chances of success.

In the case of Covid-19, that means targeting the whole network of virus-host protein interactions, not just at one or two points. DreamLab’s AI is well placed to do this, as it had already been designed to tackle networks of cancer cells rather than just individual ones.

Covid-19 cancer connection?

DreamLab’s anti-cancer heritage has other implications. Cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy are especially vulnerable to Covid-19, as their immune system has already been weakened by chemotherapy – hence the ‘shielding’ orders designed to protect them in most lockdowns.

One priority of Corona-AI’s Phase 1 research is to see if anti-cancer drugs have any effect against Covid-19. If they do, then it could potentially be a lifeline for people living with cancer otherwise unable to have chemotherapy during a widespread Covid-19 outbreak.

“It would kill two birds with one stone,” said Dr Kirill Veselkov of Imperial College London.

As Imperial has many specialists in gastric and colorectal cancers, existing drugs that treat those cancers have been prioritised in Corona-AI’s calculations.

“Those types of cancers are increasingly prevalent in Western countries and so there already many drugs available to treat them,” Dr Veselkov explained.

“Recent research indicates that cancers, like Covid-19, use kinase interactome networks to hijack cellular machinery, so the potential crossover in therapeutic use is clear.”

DreamLab "Save the world tonight" graphic

Once Phase 1 of Corona-AI is complete, Phase 2 will will look at synergetic combinations of drugs and combinations of foods on the disease.

With both phases, it will be up to researchers in the lab to replicate any promising findings from Corona-AI’s mathematical simulations in the real world. Only then will we be able to develop treatments further.

Dr Veselkov emphasised the importance of developing treatments even if an effective vaccine is developed.

“Any potential treatments developed from this project would complement a vaccine, not replace it. Especially if the virus mutates and adapts, staying with us in the years ahead.”

All of this will only be possible if we all plug in our smartphones (and tablets) every night and open the DreamLab app.

Available for iOS and Android, it can be downloaded for free from the App Store and Google Play.

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