IBM Applies Cloud, Watson, Research to Combat Zika Virus

By Darryl K. Taft  |  Posted 2016-05-23 Print this article Print
IBM big data

"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," she said. "Thus, 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."

OpenZika researchers are using a virtual screening tool called AutoDock VINA, developed by the Olson laboratory at The Scripps Research Institute. The World Community Grid is enabled by Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC), an open source-platform developed at the University of California, Berkeley and with support from the National Science Foundation.

To develop an anti-Zika drug, researchers need to identify which of millions of chemical compounds might be effective in fighting Zika. The effectiveness of each compound will be tested in virtual experiments, called "docking calculations," performed on World Community Grid volunteers' computers and Android devices, Andrade said. These calculations would help researchers focus on the most likely compounds that may eventually lead to an antiviral medicine.

The need for a treatment is acute as warmer weather approaches North America, creating an environment more conducive to Zika-carrying mosquitoes, and as international travelers contract and transmit the virus, IBM said. The search for a cure also is important for Brazil as the 2016 Summer Olympics will bring thousands of athletes and fans to the country in August.

"As a scientist and a citizen of Brazil, which has been greatly affected by Zika, I am committed to the fight against the virus, but my team and I will need the help of World Community Grid volunteers to provide the massive computational power required for our search for a Zika treatment," Andrade said.

Meanwhile, other antiviral research efforts also hold promise, IBM said. For example, IBM Research and Singapore's Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) announced that they have identified a macromolecule that could help prevent deadly viral infections such as Zika. IBM has provided its expertise and resources for other disease outbreaks, such as Ebola. For instance, IBM's World Community Grid launched a project on Ebola research.

The new research is important because viral infections often escape vaccines due to their natural ability to mutate rapidly and develop drug resistance easily. The research exploits supramolecular chemistry—the study of large molecules designed with multiple features—to help combat viral infection. IBM plans to employ its Watson cognitive computing technology to draw connections between disparate data sets to speed new insights and reach new experimental breakthroughs.

"With the recent outbreak of viruses such as Zika and Ebola, achieving antiviral breakthroughs becomes even more important," Dr. James Hedrick, lead researcher for advanced organic materials at IBM Research–Almaden, San Jose, Calif., said in a statement.

The joint IBM/IBN research breakthrough features a unique triple-play mechanism that not only prevents viral infections, but can also help prevent viral drug resistance.

"Viral diseases continue to be one of the leading causes of morbidity and mortality," Dr. Yi Yan Yang of Singapore's IBN, said in a statement. "We have created an antiviral macromolecule that can tackle wily viruses by blocking the virus from infecting the cells, regardless of mutations. It is not toxic to healthy cells and is safe for use. This promising research advance represents years of hard work and collaboration with a global community of researchers."



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