Preparing for future health emergencies with Azure HPC

May 27, 2023

Commuters walk through the city with masks on their faces.

A once-in-a-century global health emergency accelerates worldwide healthcare innovation and novel medical breakthroughs, all supported by powerful high-performance computing (HPC) capabilities.

COVID-19 has forever changed how nations function in the globally interconnected economy. To this day, it continues to affect and shape how countries respond to health emergencies. COVID-19 has demonstrated just how interconnected our society is and how risks, threats, and contagions can have global implications for many aspects of our daily lives.

COVID-19 was the largest global health emergency in over a century, with nearly 762 million cases reported as of the end of March 2023, according to the World Health Organization. The National Centre for Biotechnology Information points out the frequency and breath of new variants that continues to emerge at regular intervals. In response to this intricate health crisis, the global healthcare community quickly mobilized to better understand the virus, learn its behavior, and work toward preventative treatment measures to minimize the damage to lives across the world. Globally, nations mobilized resources for frontline workers, offered social protection to those most severely affected, and provided vaccine access for the billions who need it.

Recent technological innovations have provided the medical community with access to capabilities, such as HPC, that equipped healthcare professionals to better study, understand, and respond to COVID-19. Globally, healthcare innovators could access unprecedented computing power to design, test, and develop new treatments, faster, better, and more iteratively, than ever before.

Today, Azure HPC enables researchers to unleash the next generation of healthcare breakthroughs. For example, the computational capabilities offered by the Azure HPC HB-series virtual machines, powered by AMD EPYCTM CPU cores, allowed researchers to accelerate insights and advances into genomics, precision medicine, and clinical trials, with near-infinite high-performance bioinformatics infrastructure capabilities.

Since the beginning of COVID-19, companies have been leveraging Azure HPC to develop new treatments, run simulations, and testing at scale—all in preparation for the next health emergency. Azure HPC is helping companies unleash new treatments and health cure capabilities that are ushering in the next generation of treatments and healthcare capabilities, across the entire industry.

High-performance computing making a difference

A leading immunotherapy company partnered with Microsoft to leverage the capabilities of Azure HPC’s high-performance computing, in order to perform detailed computational analyses of the spike protein structure of SARS-CoV-2. Due to the critical nature of the spike protein structure and the role it plays in allowing the invasion of human cells, targeting it for study, analyses, and insights, is a crucial step in the development of treatments to combat the virus.

The company’s engineers and scientists collaborated with Microsoft, and quickly deployed HPC clusters on Azure, containing over 1250 core graphic processing units (GPUs). These GPUs are specifically designed for machine learning and similarly intense computational applications. The Azure HPC clusters augmented the company’s existing GPU clusters—which was already optimized for molecular modelling of proteins, antibodies, and antivirals—bringing a truly high-powered scaled engagement approach to fruition.

By collaborating with Microsoft in this way and making use of the massive, networked computing capabilities and advanced algorithms enabled by Azure HPC, the company was able to generate working models in days rather than the months it would have taken by following traditional approaches.

The incredible amount of computing power will help bolster drug discovery and therapeutic developments. By joining forces and bringing together the incredible power of Azure HPC and cutting edge immunotherapies, it helped contribute to the development of models that allowed researchers to better understand the virus, find novel binding sites to fight the virus, and ultimately guide the development of future treatments and vaccines for the virus.

Powering pharmaceutical research and innovation

The healthcare industry is making remarkable strides in the development of cutting-edge treatments and innovations that are geared towards solving some of the world’s greatest healthcare challenges.

For example, researchers are leveraging HPC to transform their research and development effort as well as accelerating the development of new life-saving treatments.

A researcher is working to create a new vaccine.

Using a technique producing amorphous solid dispersions (ASD), drug researchers break up active pharmaceutical ingredients and blend them with organic polymers to improve the dissolution rate, bioavailability, and solubility of drug delivery systems. Although a wonder of modern medicine, it is a highly complicated, often lab-based process that can take months.

Swiss-based Molecular Modelling Laboratory (MML), a leader in ASD screening, wanted to pivot its drug research and development to small organic and biomolecular polymers. This approach determines ASD stability prior to formulation, reveals new ASD combinations, enhances drug safety, and helps reduce drug development costs as well as delivery times.

MML chose to leverage Azure HPC resources on more than 18,000 Azure HBv2 virtual machines and to optimize high-throughput drug screening and active pharmaceutical ingredient solubility limit detection, with the aim to alleviate common development hurdles.

The adoption of Azure HPC has helped MML shift from a small start-up to an established business working with some of the top pharmaceutical companies in the world—all in a very short time.

For the global healthcare community, the computational power and scalability of Azure HPC presents an unprecedented opportunity to accelerate pharmaceutical, medical, as well as health innovation. Azure HPC will continue playing a leading role in supporting the healthcare industry to respond optimally to any future global health emergency that may arise.

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