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Grid Computing Power Applied to Zika Research

In Charge

Carolina Horta Andrade at Federal University of Goiás in Brazil, the lead researcher on the OpenZika project. (Ana Fortunato, IBM)

19 May 2016. A consortium in Brazil and the U.S. is employing distributed grid computing to provide processing power for research on prospective compounds for treating Zika virus infections. The OpenZika project is using World Community Grid, an initiative of IBM Corporation that links researchers at Federal University of Goiás in Brazil, Rutgers University in New Jersey, University of California in San Diego, and the company Collaborations Pharmaceuticals in North Carolina specializing in rare infectious diseases.

World Community Grid harnesses power in idle computers or mobile devices running the Android operating system, in this case to screen potential treatments for the growing number of Zika infections in the Americas that threaten the U.S. The Zika virus causes fever, with rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis, also known as pink eye. Most symptoms reported are mild, but Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the virus is linked to infections in pregnant women resulting in microcephaly and other severe brain defects. Zika is associated as well with Guillain-Barré syndrome and other neurological disorders.

The virus is spread by Aedes species mosquitoes, also associated with dengue and chikungunya viruses. Sporadic Zika virus outbreaks were reported in Africa and Asia, but an epidemic broke out in 2013 in French Polynesia, which spread to other Pacific islands. In 2015, outbreaks first occurred in northeast Brazil, and later spread to Colombia and Suriname in the fall of 2015. In Brazil alone, as many as 1.3 million cases are suspected. CDC says Puerto Rico reported its first Zika case in December 2015. There are no vaccines to prevent or treatments for Zika virus infections. Avoidance of mosquitoes is the only known control.

World Community Grid is expected to provide much more computing power than normally available to individual labs. Researchers will use that power to screen compounds from current databases against molecular and crystalline models of Zika proteins. The screening itself will use an open-source program called AutoDock Vina from Scripps Research Institute that tests for the molecular orientation and signaling capacity among of target compounds.

Carolina Horta Andrade at Federal University of Goiás, lead researcher on the project says in an IBM statement that “Enlisting the help of World Community Grid volunteers will enable us to computationally evaluate over 20 million compounds in just the initial phase and potentially up to 90 million compounds in future phases.” Horta adds that the project “will accelerate the rate at which we can obtain the results toward an antiviral drug for the Zika virus.”

Volunteers can offer idle computing time on the World Community Grid Web site. Participants download and run a free app for their systems, supported on Windows, Mac, and Linux computers, and Android mobile devices. No time or expertise are required. IBM says the results of the screenings will be shared with the research community, with the most promising compounds tested further in participating labs.

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Disclosure: The author owns shares in IBM

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