2021 in review, and happy new year 2022

World map showing global distribution of Folding@home users from Nature Chemistry 13:651–659, 2021 paper.
World map showing global distribution of Folding@home users from Nature Chemistry 13:651–659, 2021 paper.

This past year, we have largely focused on following through on our commitment to take on SARS-CoV-2. Looking ahead, there’s more work to be done on the pandemic, and we also plan to shift some of our effort back to other important problems like Alzheimer’s disease.

One of our big accomplishments was publishing our findings from all the massive simulations that our community allowed us to perform during the first year of the pandemic. This paper, published in the prestigious journal Nature Chemistry, explains how the spike on the surface of the virus opens far more dramatically than anyone expected. The probability that a spike is open controls a tradeoff between the virus’ ability to infect a host and its ability to evade an immune response. One reason the SARS-CoV-2 virus has had so much more global impact than the original SARS virus is that it is closed more often, making SARS-2 better at evading our immune systems. Understanding this opening, and other large structural rearrangements in other components of the virus, also presents new opportunities for developing vaccines and therapeutics.

We have also made significant progress on the development of a new antiviral drug, in collaboration with the COVID Moonshot. Together, we have discovered a potent inhibitor of a protein from the virus called the main protease. The Wellcome Trust recently invested $11M in the project to push towards clinical trials. In contrast to the antiviral drugs developed by big pharma, our work is being done completely in the open. That means that if we find a drug, anyone will be able to produce it. The upshot is that the drug could be made very cheaply and distributed to people who can’t afford other medications. You can read more here.

Looking ahead, we have lots of exciting new developments in the pipeline. Of course, we will continue to build on our work on SARS-CoV-2, especially the development of new antivirals. We’re also shifting some of our attention back to ongoing efforts from before the pandemic. I’m particularly excited about some of my lab’s work on Alzheimer’s disease, which I hope to be able to share soon! Finally, we’re planning to roll out some major improvements to our infrastructure, such as a new version of the Folding@home software that will make participating in our community easier and more fun than ever!

As always, we deeply appreciate your help. We literally could not do our science without you! We look forward to continuing to work together on making the world a better place in 2022.