Home / SmartTech / The $ 3M Breakthrough Prize goes to scientists developing molecules to fight COVID-19 – TechCrunch

The $ 3M Breakthrough Prize goes to scientists developing molecules to fight COVID-19 – TechCrunch

The breakthrough price The foundation today announced awards of $ 21.75 million for a variety of academic achievements. One of them is a tech / science crossover: a $ 3 million award to David Baker, whose work over the past 20 years has helped validate the idea that computers can help us make complex molecules like proteins To understand and create – and the newest such molecule could lead to new treatments for COVID-19.

Baker is director of the Institute of Protein Design at the University of Washington and has contributed to the study and definition of the field of computational molecular biology for two decades. His lab developed the Rosetta software to model the immensely intricate folding and other interactions of proteins, as well as the FoldIT distributed computer network to divide the task among avid citizen scientists.

As Bakers says, “We could wait millions more years for the protein to develop or we could design it ourselves.”


The award is specifically for “developing technologies that enable the design of proteins never before seen in nature, including novel proteins that have the potential for therapeutic interventions in human diseases.” This recognizes the role of Baker and his colleagues in technology as a whole, but his latest work could prove to be its greatest consequence: a bespoke molecule specifically designed to blunt the sharp tips of the novel coronavirus.

It’s the molecular equivalent of attaching a scabbard to a sword. The only problem is that the sword doesn’t come with the scabbard – you have to do it yourself. And that’s a lot more complicated than it sounds, since there are so many factors in how the amino acids, atoms, and bonds between the two interact. Fortunately, that’s exactly the problem Baker and his team came up with in order to solve a platform.

An illustration of a molecule made to bind to a coronavirus spike protein.

The red molecule is the mini-binder attached to the blue coronavirus protein. Credit: David Baker / UW

“We have developed generic design methods to create proteins from scratch that complement each other in shape and chemical properties to any destination,” Baker told TechCrunch. “We just aimed this at the tip of the virus!”

The “de novo” proteins developed and tested by the team bind strongly to the spike protein and do not let go – hence the name “hyper-stable mini-binders”. It’s not a miracle cure, but it could be the beginning of a therapeutic approach that will disable the way the virus spreads – once it’s properly tested, of course.

“The engineered protein described in the science paper published today looks very promising,” said Baker. “We are doing pre-clinical experiments to determine if it is an effective drug, how it is modified or needs to be modified.”

He also noted that “FoldIT players and Rosetta @ home attendees have made important contributions to our anti-COVID efforts,” so good job if you have donated computer cycles to the project.

The many other prizes that were awarded this year on topics such as mathematics and basic physics can be found in the foundation’s news article here.

The Breakthrough Prize Foundation was originally born out of the efforts (and funds) of Yuri and Julia Milner. The Life Sciences Prize is jointly sponsored by Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, Pony Ma and Anne Wojcicki.

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