The Network Science Institute

TRACKING COVID-19 IN THE AGE OF A.I.

As the COVID-19 pandemic intensifies, researchers are working to develop pharmaceutical drugs that slow the virus’s reach, heal the ill, and may offer a vaccine. But what if promising therapies already exist? Albert-László Barabási, Robert Gray Dodge Professor of Network Science, Distinguished Professor of Physics, and Director of the Center for Complex Network Research, has assembled a multidisciplinary team that is using network medicine to hunt for a COVID-19 treatment.

LEADING THE FIGHT AGAINST COVID-19

With traditional lengthy drug development pipelines now impracticable, Barabási is exploring repurposing approved drugs with known toxicity and side effects that may have a therapeutic effect on COVID-19 patients. Armed with powerful data, he is scrutinizing how the virus invades healthy cells, pinpointing drugs to treat the virus, and validating those drugs using artificial intelligence/machine learning bioinformatics and trials. 

In March, the Barabási Lab began re-curating its past work on the human interactome, an intracellular and intercellular network of protein interaction. Less than 10 days after starting, the team identified 40 medications that target the cellular areas where COVID-19 works. The virus latches on to a healthy cell’s proteins, then disrupts functions within that cell and generates millions more copies of itself. The lab developed a network model of the 332 proteins targeted by COVID-19, and examined how the virus’s perturbing activity might affect tissues and organs. For example, using this model to examine how COVID-19 binds with host proteins, the lab predicted that the virus could attack cells in the brain—which may explain why early symptoms in people with COVID-19 include loss of the senses of smell and taste.

Now, after forecasting the cellular progression of COVID-19, Barabási is looking for drugs and experimental compounds that could fight the virus by targeting proteins in its network vicinity. With Harvard Medical School researchers, he is combing through data on drugs that could be repurposed to treat COVID-19. To advance this work, Barabási and his team are performing computation to better grasp how the virus hijacks healthy cells; using 3D modeling to understand and predict its spread; and conducting experimental validation to identify drugs that could ultimately help combat COVID-19.

How you can get involved

If you’re looking to support Vespignani’s work with the Network Science Institute, connect with James Poulos, Associate Dean of Development, College of Science at j.poulos@northeastern.edu.

Faculty Expert: Albert-László Barabási, Robert Gray Dodge Professor of Network Science, Distinguished Professor of Physics, and Director of the Center for Complex Network Research. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

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