IBM is applying the strength of its cloud computing platform and its extensive research organization to help combat the Zika virus.
Big Blue’s World Community Grid has launched an international study to identify drug candidates to cure Zika, a fast spreading virus that the World Health Organization has declared a global public health emergency.
Known as the OpenZika project, the new initiative will run on the World Community Grid to identify drug candidates to treat the Zika virus in people who have been infected. The project will target proteins that the Zika virus likely uses to survive and spread in the body, based on what is known from similar diseases, such as dengue virus and yellow fever.
“Currently, there is no treatment for the Zika virus and no vaccine,” said Dr. Carolina Horta Andrade, principal investigator for OpenZika, in a blog post about the project. “Given that Zika has quickly become an international public health concern, my team and I are working with researchers here in Brazil as well as in the United States to look for possible treatments, and we are using World Community Grid to accelerate our project.”
Andrade notes that few people had heard of the Zika virus before 2015, when it began rapidly spreading in the Americas, particularly in Brazil. The virus is mostly spread by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes although sexual and blood transmission are also possible, she said.
An unknown percentage of pregnant women who have contracted the Zika virus have given birth to infants with a condition called microcephaly, which results in severe brain development issues, Andrade said. In other cases, adults and children who contract the Zika virus have suffered paralysis and other neurological problems, she added.
IBM and a global team of scientists are inviting anyone with a computer or Android device to join the OpenZika project by running an app on their Windows, Mac, Linux or Android devices that automatically performs virtual experiments for scientists whenever the machines are otherwise idle.
The World Community Grid enables anyone with a computer, Android smartphone or tablet to donate their unused computing power to advance scientific research on topics related to health, poverty and sustainability. IBM created World Community Grid in 2004 to address researchers’ needs for supercomputing power. Partially hosted on IBM’s SoftLayer cloud technology, World Community Grid provides massive amounts of supercomputing power to scientists, free of charge. Nearly 750,000 individuals and 470 organizations from 80 countries have helped World Community Grid on more than 26 research projects to date, including trying to find more effective treatments for cancer, HIV/AIDS and neglected tropical diseases.
Through the OpenZika project, the World Community Grid will power virtual experiments on compounds that could be used in antiviral drugs to cure Zika. The grid’s computing power will enable researchers to speed up the process of screening compounds from existing molecule databases against models of Zika protein and crystal structures. Screening results will quickly be shared with the research community and general public. Promising compounds would then be tested in the collaborators’ laboratories, IBM said.
For the OpenZika project, Andrade and her team at the Federal University of Goiás are working with Brazil’s Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz), Rutgers University’s New Jersey Medical School, Collaborations Pharmaceuticals, and the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of California San Diego.
Without the resources of the World Community Grid, using only the resources of her lab, Andrade said she would only be able to screen a few thousand compounds against some of the Zika proteins, or it would take years to screen millions of compounds against all Zika proteins. This would severely limit the potential for drug discovery, she said.
IBM Applies Cloud, Watson, Research to Combat Zika Virus
“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.”