Fighting Zika: The global computing effort to stop the virus

An international team of researchers is leveraging IBM’s World Community Grid to harness the computing power of volunteers around the globe who are donating their computers and Android devices to help identify potential antiviral drugs to cure the Zika virus.

Declared a global public health emergency by the World Health Organization, Zika has galvanized scientists worldwide into action to combat the fast-spreading virus. But to find a cure, they desperately need computers on a massive scale to crunch large-scale datasets.

OpenZika, an IBM-sponsored World Community Grid project, is providing that supercomputing power to researchers for free by tapping into the unused computing power of volunteers’ computers and mobile devices. With this ability to process the data, scientists will perform virtual experiments, screening current drugs and millions of drug-like compounds from existing databases against models of Zika protein structures, as well against structures of proteins from related viruses such as Dengue and West Nile Virus.


“You can think of the particular protein targets from Zika as a kind of lock,” says Alex Perryman, a research teaching specialist at Rutgers University’s New Jersey Medical School and co-principal investigator of the OpenZika project. “These compounds that we’re evaluating with the calculations are basically the key. So, we’ll evaluate literally millions of these different keys with multiple different types of locks in order to narrow down the possibilities.”

However, Perryman contends that instead of having to wait years to test all these compounds, these tests should take just a matter of months, thanks to volunteers donating their computers and smartphones to the cause. After they have the computational results in hand showing which compounds have the most promise, he says the data will be shared with the research community which will then test them in the laboratory environment to see which of the predictions were correct in laying the foundation for finding a cure for Zika.

“It’s really a wonderful example of collaboration and communication among scientists in different areas,” adds Joel Freundlich, an associate professor at the New Jersey Medical School and a key consultant on the project, who notes that the OpenZika project includes a global team of researchers led by Carolina Horta Andrade, professor at Federal University of Goias in Brazil.

Perryman, who works in Freundlich’s chemical biology lab, also managed the World Community Grid’s first biomedical computing project, FightAIDS@Home, as well as its Global Online Fight Against Malaria (GO FAM), which resulted in identifying promising tool compounds for treating malaria and drug-resistant tuberculosis.

The Freundlich lab has leveraged GO FAM data against tuberculosis drug targets, along with novel machine learning techniques they have developed, to seed novel therapeutic strategies. Still, it’s the speed with which these medical breakthroughs are being achieved that Perryman finds most astounding.

In less than two years, GO FAM volunteers on the grid performed more than a billion docking jobs, which would have taken at least 100 years using the computer capacity found at most universities, he says. Perryman is hoping the OpenZika project will likewise succeed through its partnership with IBM’s World Community Grid and the help of participants around the globe.

Founded in 2004, World Community Grid seeks to address the critical need for supercomputing power among researchers by enlisting the help of volunteers who have donated their idle computers and mobile devices for more than two dozen projects during the past 11 years, at an estimated value of more than $500 million. To date, more than 3 million computers and devices used by nearly 750,000 people across 80 countries have combined to create World Community Grid, makes it one of the world’s largest supercomputers.

“It creates a vast network that is constantly running these different projects that can help out humanitarian research, including our search for a Zika drug,” concludes Perryman.

Volunteers who want to join the OpenZika project can sign up on World Community Grid’s website and are not required to have any particular research or technical expertise, nor are there financial obligations or time commitments, according to Perryman. All that is required of participants, he says, is to run an app on their Windows, Mac, Linux or Android devices that will automatically perform virtual experiments whenever their machines are idle.

“You don’t have to be a scientist. The lay person just by contributing some of their spare computing time when they’re sleeping or doing something else can clearly help impact a disease of global health significance,” Freundlich says.

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