IBM Cloud Community Grid Project Targets Zika Virus

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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#OpenZika allows users to contribute computing power to help identify anti-Zika drug candidates

IBM has invited users to join a community grid project aimed at finding drugs that could cure Zika, a virus linked to birth defects that has reached epidemic levels in South America.

The #OpenZika project, a collaboration between IBM’s World Community Grid and researchers, is to provide free computing power to help analyse compounds that could form the basis for antiviral compounds to cure Zika, which currently can’t be treated or prevented.


Public health emergency

brazil olympicsThe virus, first identified in the Zika forest of Uganda in 1947, last year spread to Central and South America, the Caribbean and Mexico, and researchers fear it may reach North America during this year’s warm-weather months.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared it an international public health emergency.

Zika is spread by daytime-active mosquitoes and produces mild or no symptoms, but has been linked to birth defects in children whose mothers have been infected.

OpenZika allows individuals and organisations to contribute computing power to a shared grid, partly hosted by IBM’s SoftLayer cloud technology, which is then provided to researchers at no charge.

Users can take part by running an application on their Windows, Mac, Linux or Android device, IBM said. World Community Grid, founded in 2004 as a philanthropic effort, currently has more than 700,000 individual members and 470 institutional contributors across 80 countries, running more than 3 million computers and mobile devices, according to IBM.

The computing power is to be used to run virtual experiments on promising compounds, screening compounds from existing molecule databases against models of Zika protein and crystal structures.

Large-scale molecule screening

The screening results are then to be shared with researchers and the general public so that scientists can run laboratory experiments on the molecules, IBM said.

OpenZika is being run by World Community Grid with research led in Brazil by the Federal University of Goiás, and with support from Brazil’s Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz). Other collaborators include 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, IBM said.

“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,” stated Carolina Horta Andrade, Ph.D., adjunct professor at the Federal University of Goiás in Brazil, who is leading the OpenZika research.

She said the computing power from the project should enable researchers to evaluate more than 20 million compounds initially and up to 90 million as work progresses.

IBM said it has contributed to a Singapore initiative that identified a macromolecule that could help prevent viral infections such as Zika and has provided computing power through World Community Grid to help research the Ebola virus.

Other IBM technology has been used to help governments track disease outbreaks in areas such as Sierra Leone, the company said.

Last year IBM bought Chicago-based medical imaging company Merge Health for $1 billion (£660m), in a move designed to help its new Watson-powered health analytics unit better collect and process medical data.

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