While you sleep, your laptop could be helping to find a treatment for the Zika virus, says a Rutgers researcher who has been tapped to oversee a worldwide computer project.
The World Community Grid, sponsored by IBM, uses the idle “screensaver” time on more than three million computers – both private and institutional – to narrow down treatment prospects.
The effort will speed up Zika research by years, said Alex Perryman, a research specialist at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. Perryman has just been named the co-principal investigator of the OpenZika project.
Volunteers simply sign up, download an app, and let their computer or Android phone or tablet work on Zika research during what would otherwise be screensaver time. The project’s motto is, “Let your computer daydream science.”
“We’re hoping the public will see that they can join this search,” said Joel Freundlich, of the med school’s Center for Emerging and Reemerging Pathogens, who will serve as a consultant for Rutgers’ portion of the project. (Other institutions in the United States as well as Brazil, the epicenter of the Zika problem, will help oversee the computer research as well.)
Traditional drug research begins with a laborious trial-and-error to first determine if any compounds – or fragments of compounds – might target any portion of the virus.
Perryman likens it to trying to find the right key for the right lock, or a fragment of a key for a fragment of a lock. Once a compound is identified has having possibilities, researchers then move on to the next stage of fine-tuning and testing it.
But it’s slow going, with a success rate of maybe 1 percent, said Perryman.
Throw in a cloud-based network of computers across 80 countries conducting “virtual” experiments, however, and that pace picks up exponentially.
“Instead of having to wait a number of years, or even decades potentially, to test all these compounds in order to find a few that could form the basis of an antiviral drug to treat Zika, we will perform these initial tests in a matter of months, just by using idle computing power that would otherwise go to waste,” he said.
Once a computer analysis produces a promising compound, the information will be shared with any person or company interested in taking the research to the next stage, he said.
“We want as many people as possible to try to optimize these compounds to get a drug quicker,” he said. His previous work on a similar project against malaria accomplished in two years what it would’ve taken a typical university computer 100 years to complete.
People or companies interested in donating their idle computer time are able to set preferences, by picking the research topic, setting up notifications, or putting limits on the time of use or percentage of capacity the project is allowed to use.
Mark Wills, a Methodist minister and college administrator in Greeneville, Tennessee, said by email that he has the research app running on a total of seven devices at work, church, and home.
In the two years he’s participated, those computers have worked the equivalent of nine years on cancer research. (The World Community Grid also has projects on AIDS, tuberculosis, and Ebola.)
“This program allows me to be a part of the academic and scientific communities without investing in a PhD,” he wrote.
Perryman said the crowd-computing effort has been running for 10 years “without any security problems whatsoever.”