IBM Enlists World Community Grid to Combat Tuberculosis

IBM taps the power of its World Community Grid to help fight tuberculosis by accessing surplus compute cycles of users around the world.

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IBM's World Community Grid has launched the "Help Stop TB" project, an effort to stamp out tuberculosis, led by the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom.

The aim of the project is to help science better understand the TB bacterium, so that more effective treatments can be developed. Tuberculosis is caused by infection from a bacterium known as Mycobacterium tuberculosis (M. tb).

Started in 2004, World Community Grid is a philanthropic initiative of IBM Corporate Citizenship, the corporate social responsibility and philanthropy division of IBM.

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. Nearly 750,000 individuals and 470 organizations from 80 countries have helped World Community Grid on 26 research projects to date, including trying to find more effective treatments for cancer, HIV/AIDS and neglected tropical diseases.

The grid is hosted on IBM's SoftLayer cloud technology, and by tapping into the surplus computing cycles of devices all over the world, it provides power equivalent to the fastest supercomputers around, IBM said.

"By enlisting the help of World Community Grid volunteers, we plan to simulate different variations of the mycolic acid structures within the cell wall of M. tb to understand how these variations impact the functioning of the bacterium," said Dr. Anna Croft, lead researcher of the Help Stop TB project and associate professor in the Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering at the University of Nottingham, in a post on the World Community Grid blog.

"This will help us develop a more complete and cohesive model of the cell wall, and better understand the role these mycolic acids play in protecting the TB bacterium," Croft continued. "This basic research will in turn help scientists develop treatments to attack the disease's natural defenses. We would not be able to undertake the necessary big data approach to understand the structure of these mycolic acids without World Community Grid's computational power. With access to this power, we can observe many different mycolic acid structure models instead of just a few."

Tuberculosis is one of the biggest global killers, Croft said. In 2014, there were 9.6 million newly diagnosed cases and more than 1.5 million people who died from the disease, she noted. More than 1 million of these new cases, and 140,000 deaths, were estimated for children. The World Health Organization has declared TB to be the world's deadliest infectious disease, along with HIV, Croft added.

According to Croft, the tuberculosis bacterium has a coating that shields it from many drugs and the patient's immune system.

"Scientists have learned that M. tb, which causes TB, has a highly unusual cell wall made up of mycolic acids, which protects it from incoming drugs and from a person's own immune system," she said. Mycolic acids are long fatty acids in the cell walls of certain bacteria.

"Bacterial resistance against the drugs available to treat TB is on the increase throughout the world, and is making TB treatment more challenging," Croft said. "This resistance typically develops when patients don't complete their long courses of treatment, which can take from six months to two years, giving the bacteria an opportunity to evolve resistance to the drugs that were used."

Volunteers can help stop TB by joining World Community Grid.