The revolutionary prize The Foundation today announced $ 21.75 million in awards for a variety of scientific achievements. One in particular is a crossover between technology and science: a $ 3 million award to David Baker, whose work over the past 20 years has helped validate the idea that computers can help us understand and create complex molecules like proteins. – and the latest molecule of its kind could lead to new treatments for COVID-19.
Baker is the head of the Institute for Protein Design at the University of Washington and for two decades has helped explore and define the field of computer-aided molecular biology. His lab developed Rosetta software to model the immensely complicated folding and other interactions of proteins, as well as the FoldIT distributed computing network to disseminate the task to enthusiastic citizen scientists.
As Bakers puts it: “We could wait another million years for the protein we need to evolve, or we could design it ourselves.”
The award is specifically “For the development of a technology that has enabled the design of proteins never before seen in nature, including novel proteins that have the potential for therapeutic intervention in human disease.” This recognizes the role of Baker and his colleagues in the technology as a whole, but his latest work may prove to be his most important: a bespoke molecule made specifically to blunt the sharp spikes of the novel coronavirus.
It is the molecular equivalent of putting a scabbard on a sword. The only problem is that the sword doesn’t come with the scabbard – you have to do it yourself. And this is much more complicated than it sounds, as there are so many factors in how amino acids, atoms, and bonds interact between the two. Fortunately, that’s exactly the problem Baker and his team are building a platform to solve.
“We have developed general design methods to create proteins from scratch that are complementary in shape and chemical properties at arbitrary target sites,” Baker told TechCrunch. “We just aimed them at the peak of the virus!”
The “de novo” proteins created and tested by the team bind strongly to the spike protein and do not let go: hence their name, “hyperstable minibinder”. It’s not a miracle cure, but it could be the start of a therapeutic approach that disables the method of spreading the virus – once it’s been properly tested, of course.
“The engineered protein described in the Science paper published today looks very promising,” Baker said. “We are running preclinical experiments to determine if it could be an effective drug as it is or if it needs to be modified.”
He also noted that “FoldIT players and Rosetta @ home attendees have made an important contribution to our anti-COVID efforts”, so a great job if you’ve donated computer loops to the project.
You can see the many other awards awarded this year, in topics like mathematics and fundamental physics, in the foundation’s news post here.
The Breakthrough Prize Foundation was originally born from the efforts (and coffers) of Yuri and Julia Milner, and the life sciences award is co-sponsored by Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, Pony Ma and Anne Wojcicki.