Supercomputing Grid Takes Aim at Zika Virus

By: Michael Feldman

The World Community Grid (WCG) has been recruited to tackle the Zika virus, one of the fastest-spreading and most dangerous viruses in recent memory. The project, known as OpenZika, will use WCG computing resources to identify candidate drugs that exhibit anti-viral properties against the Zika organism.

A press release from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), one of the OpenZika partner institutions, said the project will “screen more than 20 million compounds from existing databases against models of Zika protein structures.”  Good candidate drugs will be able to tightly bind with these structures at the molecular level, thus interfering with their function.

Molecular modeling at this scale typically requires a large supercomputer, but because this type of problem can be broken down into bite-sized pieces that can be processed independently, it can also be run on a loosely constructed “grid” of distributed computers.

WCG was launched by IBM in 2004 and has grown into one of the largest public supercomputing grids in the world. It relies on individuals contributing idle computing time on their client devices -- laptops, smartphones, etc. -- to solve research problems amenable to this geographically distributed computing model.  IBM manages the grid and utilizes its own SoftLayer cloud as a host resource.

According to a press release from Rutgers University, another OpenZika partner, WCG taps into over three million client computers, which have been contributed by 750,000 individuals. Over the past 11 years, the grid’s resources have been applied to more than two dozen research projects at an estimated value of over $500 million dollars.

In addition to IBM, the OpenZika effort includes an international team of researchers, led by Federal University of Goias in Brazil; with scientists from the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz) in Brazil; Rutgers University’s New Jersey Medical School (NJMS); and the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). Carolina Horta Andrade, professor at Federal University of Goias, is the principal investigator. Joining Perryman as co-PI is Sean Ekins, the CEO of Collaborations Pharmaceuticals.

If you would like to donate some idle computer time of your own or learn more about WCG and its various projects, check out the World Community Grid website.