IBM announced that its World Community Grid, now “powered by its SoftLayer cloud,” will provide free virtual supercomputing power to The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) to accelerate the screening of chemical compounds critical to stopping the deadly Ebola virus. Some treatments have been shown effective against Ebola, but scientists have not yet discovered its ultimate achilles heal. The “Outsmart Ebola Together” volunteer computing project aims to find this definitive cure.
Thanks to the volunteer nature of IBM’s grid computing network, anyone with a Mac or Windows-based computer or Android-based smart phone (iPhones and iPads are not supported at this time) can now contribute to this worthy cause by downloading a small software package at www.worldcommunitygrid.org. The program is loaded with screening software developed by the Olson laboratory at TSRI, called AutoDock and AutoDock VINA. The IBM client is designed to use the idle capacity of the devices, so it won’t slow other applications. Mobile devices are automatically configured to only contribute processing while the device is plugged into a power source and connected to Wi-Fi to avoid draining batteries or running up data charges.
Through the collective processing power of a virtual supercomputing army, the computers form a grid computer, enabling Scripps researchers to screen millions of chemical compounds in their search for an Ebola treatment or cure. The “Outsmart Ebola Together” project is headed up by the Ollmann Saphire laboratory at TSRI. The lab has already made significant headway having mapped the proteins that comprise the Ebola virus. IBM explains that the most promising candidate compounds to emerge from volunteer machines will be physically tested in the lab to verify their effectiveness. The best of this lot will be modified to zero in on the targeted protein, while minimizing side effects. After that comes drug trials and if successful, the compound becomes an approved drug.
“Our molecular images of the Ebola virus are like enemy reconnaissance,” observes Dr. Erica Ollmann Saphire of TSRI. “These images show us where the virus is vulnerable and the targets we need to hit. In the Outsmart Ebola Together project, we will be able to harness World Community Grid’s virtual supercomputing power to find the drugs we need to aim at these targets.”
Ebola continues to spread, defying best efforts to contain it. While its mainly been relegated to more isolated regions, the risk of proliferation increases as people around the globe become more mobile. A microbiologist who has been studying the Ebola virus for 11 years, Saphire has identified where the virus is most vulnerable, but determining which compounds will act on these proteins is compute-intensive. The situation is made even more difficult because the protein responsible for replication is known to mutate, taking on different shapes for different functions. So Saphire is also studying this mutation process over the long-term.
Given the length of typical drug discovery cycles, which can span ten years or more; the cost, which can quickly reach into hundreds of millions of dollars and higher; and the high mortality rate of the Ebola virus, a project that can launch quickly by spreading these costs out to a large volunteer base is essential. IBM reports that crowdsourcing this effort will “dramatically accelerate the process of identifying a cure.”
In the ten years since it was established, the World Community Grid has harnessed the power of nearly 3 million computers and mobile devices, assisting more than 20 research projects with more than one million years of computing time.