NRC─Japan collaboration to work on nanotech COVID-19 research


- Edmonton, Alberta

For the past year, COVID-19 vaccines have been top of mind—from the race to develop the science behind them to vaccination roll-out plans. But what often gets overlooked is that not everyone can be vaccinated due to unique health concerns, weakened immune systems, or severe allergies to specific ingredients in the vaccines. In these cases, the public looks to other types of medication and treatments. Consequently, NRC researchers are working on new innovative technologies to provide an alternative solution, in partnership with researchers overseas.

Booting it up

When it comes to vaccine and medication technology, some traditional methodologies do not always work, so our Nanotechnology Research Centre tried taking a different approach. In a project led by Dr. Sergey Gusarov, NRC Senior Research Officer, and Dr. Norio Yoshida from Kyushu University in Japan, researchers will attempt to combine multiple scientific fields, from materials science to biology, to find a solution. In this collaboration, nanocrystals and nanoparticles will be applied to COVID-19 research to introduce molecular and theoretical modelling to the project. This method is an improvement over the traditional trial-and-error approach of using physical experiments for viruses that can quickly become expensive and tedious. However, using this new method introduces yet another challenge: the need for the right computer technology to run tests on these particles. But Dr. Gusarov knew just who to reach out to.

Connecting the circuit board

After working in the field of nanotechnology for over 20 years, Dr. Gusarov has built strong relationships with a number of international partners, one of them being the RIKEN Center for Computational Science, a large scientific research institute in Japan, and the host to the Fugaku supercomputer. The Fugaku computer is capable of heavy computation for the COVID-19 drug development and screening, which makes RIKEN the ideal partner for this project. When the NRC and RIKEN hosted a workshop on high-performance computing, Dr. Gusarov jumped at the opportunity to propose an idea for a project that would leverage the capabilities of both organizations, as well as other Japanese collaborators.

Dr. Gusarov's team at the Nanotechnology Research Centre and Dr. Yoshida's team at Kyushu University submitted a joint proposal request to the Japan Science and Technology Agency, one of Japan's core research institutions offering funding to Japanese researchers undertaking scientific collaborations with organizations in certain countries, including Canada. The proposal was accepted recently, which allows Dr. Gusarov the opportunity to work alongside RIKEN as well as researchers at Kyushu University and Meiji University in Japan.

The blueprint

Dr. Gusarov explains that his research project concentrates on the screening of potential drugs that combat the COVID-19 virus and the very focussed and precise technology required to work with the nanoparticles. Typically, this kind of research falls under the NRC's Human Health Therapeutics Research Centre since the surface of the spike proteins need to be scanned, a more biology-heavy task. However, because the size of the surface is microscopic, the research is facilitated by using a nanotechnology methodology known as an interaction site model, a molecular theory of the interaction between a solvent and dissolved molecules.

Using this computational methodology, the research project aims to find the best combination of ingredients for creating a drug that acts as a shield or barrier between the COVID-19 spike protein and the human cell membrane. While the idea itself is simple in theory, it could not be performed without the supercomputer capabilities of Fugaku.

This project will be advanced in both Japan and Canada, and the teams will later come together to compare results and evaluate possible combinations. The outcome of this research will be instrumental to other drug development processes in the future, providing further scientific studies with solid preliminary information and data sets that support the first step of the process. This will result in better-informed pharmaceutical companies and physicians, a decrease in the number of potential drug attempts, and the reduction of time and resources spent in trial and error. Overall, the science will maximize efficiency in the drug-making process for prospective projects, which will make a fundamental difference to the future of health technologies and the safety of Canadians.