In an effort to halt the spread of deadly infectious diseases now threatening to reach epidemic proportions around the world, an unprecedented research effort was launched by IBM, The University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB), and the University of Chicago to discover drugs to treat and cure dengue fever, West Nile encephalitis, hepatitis C, and a host of related diseases including yellow fever.
Dengue fever, found throughout the world’s tropical and subtropical regions, and West Nile virus, which affects Africa, Asia, Europe, and most recently, the United States, have no known drug treatments. These diseases are primarily passed to adults and children by infected mosquitoes, and are responsible for millions of illnesses, as well as thousands of deaths each year. With no available cures, these infections severely burden strained medical resources in developed and developing countries.
The project, “Discovering Dengue Drugs – Together,” will use the vast computational power of World Community Grid, a virtual supercomputer comprised of hundreds of thousands of individuals who donate their unused computer time, making it as powerful as one of the world’s top five supercomputers. Calculations will be run on World Community Grid to find drugs that will stop the replication of the viruses that cause dengue fever, West Nile encephalitis, hepatitis C, and yellow fever. Once the compounds are identified through exhaustive computational analysis, researchers can begin testing these drugs in laboratories and clinics to determine their effectiveness.
“Infectious diseases create not only illness, but also poverty,” according to Dr. Ayo Oduola of the World Health Organization’s Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases. “For example, dengue fever is a serious and growing public health problem affecting millions of people and there are no drugs to treat it. Continued research is needed to better understand the four dengue viruses and to develop drugs that could help reduce the burden of disease and to save lives.”
Researchers estimate that about 50,000 years of computational time is needed to complete the calculations necessary to discover effective antiviral drugs. Running on World Community Grid, this project may be completed in less than one year. The more computer power volunteered, the faster the research will be conducted.
Dr. Stan Watowich, lead researcher and Associate Professor of Biochemistry at UTMB, says, “Without World Community Grid, we would have to make inexact, simplifying assumptions that have proven to be obstacles to previous drug development efforts. World Community Grid enables us to perform comprehensive calculations that yield accurate biochemical results, and therefore give us the best chance to discover cures for these serious worldwide diseases.”
The first phase of the project will target one of the primary proteins that enables viruses to replicate, and will match this protein against a database of more than six million drug molecules that might inhibit virus replication. The second phase, which is more difficult, will predict which drug molecules bind tightest to the viral proteins, and thus have the best chance of inhibiting virus replication. From these unprecedented calculations, researchers will walk away with several dozen molecules that they can begin testing in the laboratory and clinic, which is the next phase in developing drugs for the marketplace.
“Anyone with a computer and Internet access can be a part of the solution to address this very critical health concern,” said Stanley Litow, Vice President of Corporate Citizenship and Corporate Affairs and President of the IBM International Foundation. “Simply by donating our unused computer cycle time, we can all have a profound effect on how quickly this team can move to the next phase of drug discovery. For example, if 100,000 volunteers sign up within the first week for this project, it could reduce the time required to complete calculations by 50 percent.”
To donate their unused computer time to this project, individuals register on www.worldcommunitygrid.org and install a free, small software program onto their computers. When computers are idle, for example when people are at lunch, their computers request data from World Community Grid’s server. These computers then perform drug discovery computations using this data, and send the results back to the server, prompting it for a new piece of work. A screen saver will tell individuals when their computers are being used.
For this project, Dr. Watowich worked with Lanier Middle School in Houston, Texas, to develop a special screen saver based on writings of its eighth grade students. The student’s writings focus on how to make the world a better place, complementing the humanitarian focus of the research project and World Community Grid. Dr. Watowich said he wanted students to understand the impact of modern biomedical research, give students the feeling of empowerment, and show them they can make a difference through their ideas and actions.
World Community Grid, the largest public humanitarian grid in existence, has an impressive 315,000-plus members and links more than 700,000 computers. However, it’s estimated that there will be one billion computers worldwide by 2008, underscoring the potential for World Community Grid’s computational power to significantly expand and make an even greater humanitarian impact. Seven projects have been run on World Community Grid to date, including FightAIDS@Home, which completed five years of HIV/AIDS research in just six months. Additional projects are in the pipeline.