Meet Sanzio Bassini

Sanzio Bassini © Cineca, 2020

Sanzio Bassini © Cineca, 2020

He’s the director of the supercomputer department at Cineca, the largest computing centre in Italy. Sanzio’s responsible for managing Marconi-100, one of the fastest computers in Europe, which is involved in many European and international research projects.

Thanks to their extremely high processing power, supercomputers are able to solve hugely complex and demanding problems in a fraction of the time that normal computers, let alone humans, would need. It’s not just their power that’s impressive but also their imposing futuristic look: rows of giant machines and wires fill large rooms, processing millions of operations per second. However, this isn’t science fiction; the supercomputers have been enlisted to help in the fight against coronavirus.

Super-speed research

Under the EU-funded EXSCALATE4CoV project, Sanzio and his team at Cineca are working with 17 other partners and 27 associated members in Europe. The project brings 4 supercomputer platforms in Italy, Germany and Spain together with Europe’s top research centres and pharmaceutical companies to investigate the best treatments for coronavirus.

How do the supercomputers do this? Within milliseconds, they scan vast amounts of data to analyse the make-up of coronavirus and check whether any molecules in available drugs could fight the virus. Using an existing treatment against another disease is known as ‘re-purposing,’ and it’s one of the fastest ways to combat new illnesses.

Marconi100 supercomputer

Marconi100 supercomputer © Cineca, 2020

A supercomputer triumph

The high-performance computing power and pooled resources of the project members has allowed research to be conducted in a matter of months. With more traditional methods, this could typically take years.

By mid-2020, the consortium’s supercomputers had already tested the interaction between the coronavirus and 400,000 pharmaceutical molecules to assess which might be able to neutralise the virus and stop it from replicating. And in November 2020, the two Italian supercomputers – Cineca’s Marconi-100 and ENI’s HPC5 – undertook their biggest challenge to date: in just 60 hours, they analysed over 71 billion pharmaceutical molecules. This means conducting 5 million simulations per second!

“Technologies help to speed up research against the coronavirus.”

It’s a match!

The research brought results. The drug Raloxifene, typically used to treat osteoporosis, could be effective in blocking the replication of the coronavirus in cells, therefore holding up its progression.

As Raloxifene is already clinically approved for one disease – meaning it’s safe for human use – it could quickly be made available in high volumes and at low cost. Now, to confirm the supercomputer findings, Raloxifene is undergoing clinical trials in Italy as a treatment for coronavirus, funded by the EU as part of its emergency response to the pandemic.

“The EXSCALATE4COV consortium has already identified safe drugs suitable for repurposing in the fight against coronavirus.”

The fight against coronavirus

The fight against coronavirus © European Union, 2020

The supercomputer research generated the most in-depth study to date on the interaction between coronavirus and drugs. The data is freely available on a dedicated portal, accessible to all scientists. By working together and ensuring open access to information, the international scientific community is bringing us ever closer to overcoming the pandemic.

EU innovation support

The project is fully funded by Horizon 2020, the EU’s research and innovation programme. However, funding for supercomputers isn’t a recent phenomenon. Before coronavirus, EU-funded supercomputers helped with research into therapies for the Zika virus during the 2016 outbreak. Past EU support for the sector meant that research into coronavirus could get off the ground quickly.

“EXSCALATE4COV benefits from the experience gained thanks to the EU funded Antarex project, which screened more than one billion compounds to identify new potential drugs to fight the Zika virus.”

Knowledge saves lives, and EU-funded research and innovation has been one of the most reliable tools for overcoming the coronavirus crisis. From vaccine development to pandemic preparedness, the EU will continue to support scientists across the Union.