Supercomputer may hold cure to Ebola

Toronto company doing high-speed evaluation of potential drugs

Ebola has made its way to North American shores and health officials around the world are rapidly trying to develop a vaccine for the virus. Toronto-based researcher Abraham Heifets may have a part of the solution.

Heifets is the CEO of Chematria, a company that delivers medical forecasts with the help of a supercomputer. Heifets and his team are using the technology to calculate how different drugs interact with this deadly disease.

“We are looking for what is called drug repurposing, we look for a drug that is already on the market, is already approved, that already exists, that we know how to make, that we know is safe with people,” Heifets said. “And we want to see if they have any unintended side effects that can also treat Ebola.”

This supercomputer is the biggest and fastest one in Canada.

“It has 64,000 cores in it, a MacBook has two cores in it,” he said. “So it is the equivalent to 30,000 laptops.”

Heifets and his team are collaborating with the University of Toronto and are evaluating drugs that have been approved in Canada, the United States, the EU and Japan.

It takes an average of 14 years to find a new drug in the industry, but the supercomputer will make the wait tremendously shorter.

“We are going to evaluate molecules in a couple of weeks. If we can predict that any of the drugs can be useful, that is just the beginning. Then they have to be tested in the lab and then they have to be shown that they work,” Heifets said. “There is quite a lot of testing that has to be done before we move it to people. However, it won’t take the 14 years that it would normally.”

Heifets is confident that his company can make a prediction. And history tells us it can be done.

“This might sound like it won’t work, but there are examples that everybody knows about, like Aspirin,” he said.  “People take Aspirin for headaches, but now they also take it for heart disease.”

Heifets believes this supercomputer is the future of finding cures for diseases other than Ebola, as well.

The Ebola outbreak began last December and has killed close to 5,000 people in West Africa alone. There is a Canadian-made vaccine in the works, adding to the fight to stop an Ebola pandemic.