For the past seven years, bioinformatics researcher Dmitry Korkin has started his bioinformatics class by assigning students to watch the 2011 film Contagion, a thriller about a pandemic. It’s an opportunity for his students to understand the key proteins inside a virus.

“My students are able to see scientists in the film looking at key proteins in order to design a novel vaccine,” says Korkin, who serves as director of WPI’s bioinformatics and computational biology program.

As it turns out, the film is true to life given the coronavirus pandemic that has swept the globe,leading to more than 4 million cases and almost 300,000 deaths (at press time). “The reality is that virologists and bioinformaticians are at the forefront of studying this disease,” he adds.

Korkin made national headlines earlier this year when he and his eight-member research team created and unveiled a structural 3D roadmap of COVID-19, a major development that potentially holds the key to understanding the spread and treatment of the deadly virus.

And rather than keep the research to himself, Korkin freely shared the 3D roadmap with scientists worldwide. It was also posted on bioRxiv, a free online archive that was available for download by the scientific community, and was published in Viruses, a leading virology journal. In fact, the cover of Viruses highlighted his team’s work.

“Anyone can download our models, get any kind of information, and use it for research,” he says. “This is one of the first examples of how data-driven science can quickly respond to this challenge.”

As a next phase of his research, Korkin and his team are studying the molecular basis of susceptibility to the virus across different ethnic populations. Additionally, he just concluded a five-year study examining infectious outbreaks in confined environments, focusing first on cruise ships.

With the cruise ships study, he designed a 3D geographical information system (think Google maps) and used AI technology to introduce a realistic simulation of the path that passengers take on ships as a means to understanding the most contaminated locations. Prevention protocols can then be implemented and virtually tested. The simulations can also extend to outbreaks in other contained areas, such as schools, corporate offices, and grocery stores.

As with his earlier research, Korkin will share these findings far and wide.

“We will collaborate with other researchers and the CDC,” he says, “to ensure they have tools they can use.”

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