Thomas R. O'Donnell

Roundup: Ebola shots, big computer plans and a sunny outcome for ISU

In Industry Research, University research on August 2, 2015 at 7:12 pm
A colorized transmission electron micrograph (TEM) image of an  Ebola virus virion, created by CDC microbiologist Cynthia Goldsmith. Credit: CDC global Flickr stream.

A colorized transmission electron micrograph (TEM) image of an Ebola virus virion, created by U.S. Centers for Disease Control microbiologist Cynthia Goldsmith. Credit: CDC global Flickr stream.

Iowans and Iowa institutions have played roles in nationally and internationally significant science and technology developments in the last week, but sometimes you have to know the background to understand their involvement.

For instance, there was big news on Friday when the British medical journal The Lancet published results from an Ebola vaccine trial. The medicine appears highly effective – 100 percent, statistically – against the deadly disease. An Iowa company had a hand in it.

Just the day before, President Barack Obama signed an executive order putting the United States on course to build the most powerful computer ever. What few have noticed is the work a top University of Iowa official put in to helped set the stage for the program.

Meanwhile, Iowa State University students in Texas were celebrating after winning a race of sun-powered cars. And they not only won – they dominated, taking home the trophy for the first time since the team began racing 25 years ago.

Ebola breakthrough?

The Ebola news is about the VSV-EBOV vaccine, developed a decade ago in Texas, then patented by Canadian researchers and licensed to NewLink Genetics, an Ames company. With no major markets – Ebola is rare and most outbreaks die quickly with vigilant quarantine protocols – the vaccine sat dormant.

But interest was revived when the outbreaks that started last year proved especially widespread and enduring. Work was rushed to develop VSV-EBOV and at least one other vaccine.

The Lancet paper reported on a trial in Guinea that started in March. Science magazine writer Martin Enserink gives a thorough account of the protocol, which involved vaccinating contacts of new Ebola patients and the contacts’ contacts. Some received the vaccine soon after exposure as possible. Others got it three week later.

The researchers then tracked how many vaccinated people got Ebola in each group, but only counted those who got sick at least 10 days later – the period researchers believed it would take for immunity to develop. Any cases before 10 days weren’t included, because the vaccine may not yet have been effective.

None of the 2,014 subjects vaccinated immediately got Ebola after that 10-day period; only 16 of the 2,380 of those vaccinated later got sick.

Researchers not associated with the study were effusive about its results, as Enserink wrote:

“This will go down in history as one of those hallmark public health efforts,” says Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy in Twin Cities, Minnesota … “We will teach about this in public health schools.”

“It’s a wonderful result and a fantastic illustration of how vaccines can be developed very quickly and can be used in an outbreak situation to control the disease,” says Adrian Hill, a vaccine researcher at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.

More testing is needed before the vaccine can be approved for widespread use and more trials are planned.

Scientists praised the unusual way in which the vaccine was tested (read Enserink’s report if you want details), but some weren’t so happy last year, as I noted in October. There was a perception that NewLink was sitting on doses of the vaccine because it feared losing control of the trials. Some researchers charged it was slow to release necessary data about how the vaccine was made.

That problem apparently was solved to everyone’s satisfaction in November, when NewLink licensed the vaccine to pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. As The Des Moines Register’s Matthew Patane reported, the deal earned NewLink a nice $50 million and Merck took over the vaccine’s development and testing.

It may have been the only way the vaccine would make it into trials quickly. NewLink is just too small to stage the necessary in-country testing. Merck obviously had the resources and experience to carry on the work. Perhaps the real delay last fall was because NewLink was finalizing the Merck deal. That $50 million will go a long way to pay bills and finance its drug research.

To exascale – and beyond?

An Iowan also was behind the scenes in a major development in high-performance computing (HPC) last week.

On Thursday, Obama signed an executive order establishing the National Strategic Computing Initiative, an interagency drive to build an exascale computer. Exascale means a computer capable of 1018 floating-point operations per second (flops) – a quintillion, or a billion billion arithmetic operations, each second.

It’s huge advance, a leap forward that would be about a 30 times as fast as today’s most powerful computer, a Chinese machine called Tianhe-2. It’s around a thousand times faster than the petaflops machines that are becoming common at research institutions around the world.

This is what I write about in my day job, and I can say that computer research today is beginning to focus on the huge technical challenges to building such an enormous machine. Scientists say they need that power for highly accurate simulations of climate, chemical interactions, combustion, astrophysical phenomena, nuclear reactors and weapons, and more. Much of what they want to simulate is impossible or too expensive to experiment with in the laboratory. In other cases, simulations help guide researchers to the most promising areas for experiments, cutting costs and accelerating the quest for answers.

The University of Iowa's Daniel Reed, from his blog.

The University of Iowa’s Daniel Reed, from his blog.

The Iowa connection: A top University of Iowa official has helped lay the groundwork for exascale, including heading a group that issued an exascale computing report earlier in the week.

Daniel Reed, the U of I’s vice president for research and economic development, previously worked in extreme computing for Microsoft and other academic and industrial institutions. At one time he directed the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, a renowned HPC institution at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

On Monday, just days before the White House announcement, a subcommittee Reed headed issued a report on the Department of Energy’s exascale computing plans to the Advanced Scientific Computing Advisory Committee, a group of academic and industrial leaders that helps guide DOE HPC research and development.

The subcommittee, as industry website HPCwire reported, mostly endorsed DOE’s exascale plans, with some tweaks to how they’re organized and managed.

“Like any ambitious undertaking, DOE’s proposed exascale computing initiative involves some risks. Despite the risks, the benefits of the initiative to scientific discovery, national security and U.S. economic competitiveness are clear and compelling,” HPCwire quotes Reed.

It may be coincidence that Obama’s executive order came out three days later. On the other hand, it would have been more difficult to justify that order had Reed’s committee reported negatively on DOE’s exascale initiative.

Reed, who blogs (even more rarely than I do) and tweets, also popped up in June as author, with HPC legend Jack Dongarra, of an exascale-related article in Communications of the ACM, the journal of the Association for Computing Machinery. It’s technical, but they argue for a closer interplay between exascale development and the analysis of big data, a hot topic in computing circles these days. HPCwire has a summary, if you’re interested. Reed also expounds on it in his blog.

Sun runners

While all this was going on, Iowa State University students were in Texas, blowing away the competition in a race for solar-powered cars.

Team PrISUm ran away with the title by completing more than 70 laps each day on a closed track in Austin. As the ISU News Service reported, no other team completed 70 laps in a single day, much less on each of three days of competition. The team also set a record for fastest lap.

Phaëton, from the Team PrISUm website.

Phaëton, from the Team PrISUm website.

The team said it won partly because it went with batteries that store less energy, but better at handling the scorching heat that hit during the 2015 Formula Sun Grand Prix. Phaëton (PDF), the team’s car, kept going while others overheated.

The team also focused on race strategy, constantly monitoring conditions and adjusting speed and lap times.

PrISUm is a subject close to my heart, although I haven’t followed them lately as closely as I should. I was the Ames bureau reporter for the Des Moines Register in the early 1990s and covered the solar car team heavily.

Back then, the race was held on public highways and went from south to north over hundreds of miles. The year I tagged along with the team (I believe it was 1993), the race went through Iowa, so I rode along with the team as it traveled through Missouri and Kansas. It was great fun and I was impressed with the students’ organizational and engineering skills.

But solar cars and highways don’t always mix. A couple years later the team’s car was in a serious crash. No one died, but as I recall the driver suffered a leg injury. While they still race cross-country every other year, I’d bet the closed track, where conditions are easier to control, is safer.

One last story about the team: The students must raise money to build and race its car, and a year or two after I rode with them they contacted General Mills, which had just introduced a new cereal, Sun Crunchers, to seek a donation.

The company didn’t contribute money, but did send the team a pallet of cereal. I saw a lot of students eat a lot of Sun Crunchers over the next few weeks.

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