The modelling represents a major breakthrough in the battle to eradicate the disease, and could one day be used to find a cure for HIV and other life-threatening viruses.
Victorian Infectious Diseases Reference Laboratory deputy director and lead researcher Jason Roberts said the simulation was developed using the most powerful supercomputer in the southern hemisphere, Blue Gene Q.
The technology, developed by the University of Illinois for life sciences research, enables a model of the virus to be built in minutes by mapping the atoms within it.
‘‘Without it, this research would have taken months, if not years,’’ Dr Roberts said. ‘‘ When you’ve got in excess of two million or three million atoms floating around in a virtual system, it takes an incredible amount of computing power to model that.
‘‘Up until this machine, this was pie-in-the-sky stuff. Now we can actually do it,’’ he said.
Dr Roberts said the modelling enabled researchers to see how a virus would react in different situations. ‘‘We’re adding a drug in there, and that drug will float around in solution, bind and do all the things it needs to do,’’ he said.
The campaign to eradicate polio has made significant advances recently, with only 212 cases reported worldwide last year, compared with 620 in 2011.
The disease is now found in only three countries — Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan — where health authorities have faced significant challenges in trying to immunise the population.
Reports late last month of a vaccine-resistant polio virus emerging in at least 10 people in Pakistan prompted the World Health Organisation to start using a different vaccine from the one they have used for the past 50 years.
The supercomputer modelling would enable scientists to deal with growing vaccine-resistant strains of the disease, Dr Roberts said. ‘‘The simulation can be used to determine how the virus mutates, changes with temperature, interacts with water and, most importantly. how it interacts with drugs.’’
Dr Roberts said the research potentially had ‘‘huge ramifications’’ for public health. ‘‘There’s nothing stopping us in 10 years’ time moving this over to other viruses such as HIV.’’
He said the researchers had chosen to work on polio, rather than other viruses, because they had nearly 100 years of research on which to base their modelling.
‘‘It’s one of the most studied viruses of all time, so it’s a fantastic model,’’ he said.
Accuracy is one of the researchers’ highest priorities as they work at such a minute level. They will need to take time to perfect it before they can think about adapting the simulation to other viruses.
‘‘The way I often like to imagine it is to tell people it’s like walking into the MCG and saying you need to check one chair to find out if it’s got four legs,’’ Dr Roberts said. ‘‘There are a lot of chair legs in the MCG.’’