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Fight Zika by making your smartphone into a supercomputer

You can help find a drug that could knock out the Zika virus, while you're playing Candy Crush on your smartphone.

An international research effort to identify potential drug compounds to combat the virus is being launched on a tech platform that turns a network of volunteers' personal computers, as well as Android mobile phones and tablets, into a virtual supercomputer that can speedily process millions of calculations.

The #OpenZika project, announced Thursday, will run virtual experiments on potential compounds that could form drugs to address Zika. It's the latest health-related research project by IBM's World Community Grid.

After a dozen years of operation, the platform has almost 750,000 people and 470 institutions across 80 countries, allowing researchers to tap their 3.5 million computers and mobile devices for latent processing power. The World Community Grid has been used to research diseases including malaria, Ebola, tuberculosis and childhood neuroblastoma.

Volunteers download a World Community Grid app to their computer or devices. That allows researchers to run calculations on the devices, without their owners noticing a difference in performance. Data generated from the #OpenZika project will be available to researchers on an open-source basis around the world.

Illustration of the Zika virus.
Image copyright John Liebler, www.ArtoftheCell.com. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Illustration of the Zika virus.

The #OpenZika project comes two months after the World Health Organization declared the Zika outbreaks occurring in Brazil and other countries a public health emergency of international concern, and a week after U.S. health authorities said that more than 500 people in the United States have been infected with the Zika virus while traveling abroad.

The mosquito-borne virus, which is rarely fatal, was confirmed last month as causing microcephaly — abnormally small heads and brains — in babies after their moms are infected while pregnant, as well as other severe birth defects.

"When people hear about a crisis like this, they want to do something about it," said Stanley Litow IBM's vice president of corporate citizenship and corporate affairs and president of IBM's Foundation.

"Here's an opportunity for them to really do something about it, and also to be connected" to other people who are helping fight Zika, Litow said of the grid, a philanthropic initiative by IBM that more than a year ago added Android mobile devices to its network.

Litow said volunteers can track how many calculations were done on their computers or mobile devices, can determine which research projects they want their computing power used for and can designate when they want the devices accessed.

He added that in the World Community Grid's history, despite many millions of computations performed, there has never been a security breach of users' computers or devices.

Researchers at several of the institutions participating in the #OpenZika project said that getting access to the World Community Grid offers the chance to dramatically speed up the experimental process as they seek a cure for the virus.

Without access to supercomputers, they said, running virtual experiments of potential drug compounds on traditional computers would take much longer. They noted that access to time on traditional, stand-alone supercomputers is limited for researchers.

Alexander Perryman, a research teaching specialist at Rutgers University's Center for Emerging and Re-emerging Pathogens, said that the time that researchers could get on a traditional supercomputer would equal only "tens of thousands of hours or hundreds of thousands of CPU [central processing unit] hours."

But with the Worldwide Community Grid, he said, researchers could get the equivalent of 30,000 years of CPU time during the same time frame. "It's a tremendous amount of orders of magnitude more than we could get from a traditional supercomputer," Perryman said.

That amount of power is crucial when researching a disease such as Zika, according to Rutgers associate professor Joel Freundlich, who runs a lab within the Center for Emerging and Re-Emerging Pathogens.

Freundlich said that unlike a disease such as cancer, which has attracted massive amounts of research over decades, the Zika virus until recently has drawn little interest among drug developers.

Getting access to IBM's grid, Freundlich said, "is a massive sort of jump start to the drug discovery effort," helping to weed out the many compounds that aren't likely to address Zika, and identifying what will be relatively few compounds that offer a better chance of fighting it.

Carolina H. Andrade, Ph.D.
Source: IBM
Carolina H. Andrade, Ph.D.

Carolina Andrade, professor at the Federal University of Goias in Brazil, said the grid's 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."

"Running the OpenZika project on World Community Grid will allow us to greatly expand the scale of our project, and it will accelerate the rate at which we can obtain the results toward an antiviral drug for the Zika virus."

When the grid does identity potentially useful drug compounds, researches then will conduct experiments in real-world labs to test their efficacy on the virus and their safety for human cells.

One of those researchers will be Jair Lage de Siqueira-Neto, an assistant professor in the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences at University of California, San Diego.

De Agostini Picture Library | Getty Images

De Siqueira-Neto, whose specialty is tropical and neglected disease, said he's never been involved in virtual screening of drugs before.

"This is new to me, and I'm very excited," he said. He added that in his real-world lab, "I can test up to 100,000 molecules in a couple of months," in contrast to the grid platform, where "we might be able to screen 100 million molecules in a few months."

De Siqueira-Neto, who is volunteering his own computer to the project, said he expects to "get the first molecule candidate in the next few weeks, or maybe in the next month" for testing in his lab in San Diego.

"We really do hope this will accelerate the process," he said.