You probably leave your computer and phone on when you’re not using them. And even when you are using your laptop, you’re not constantly pushing it to use all of its processing power. A number of projects have exploited that latent potential to search for aliens, solve unsolved conjectures in mathematics, and run climate change simulations. Now, your idle devices can join the international search for a treatment for Ebola, at no cost of time, money, or effort to you.
Using the “grid computing” project World Community Grid, volunteers from around the world can donate their spare processing power to health research projects of their choice, including AIDS, cancer, the human genome, and now Ebola.
“For a similar project called FightAIDS@Home, which is run by my colleague Dr. Arthur Olson, they can get data in a couple of months that it would have taken them 10 years to collect otherwise,” says Dr. Erica Ollman Saphire, an epidemiologist at The Scripps Research Institute, who is managing World Community Grid’s Outsmart Ebola initiative.
Saphire, whose lab at Scripps has been researching Ebola full-time for 11 years, hopes to accelerate the progress of her research in the same way. The potential is enormous: So far, World Community Grid volunteers—more than 680,000 people from 80 countries—have contributed computer power equal to one laptop running nonstop for 76,000 years. At any given moment, the grid’s processing power is equivalent to one of the top five supercomputers in the world.
World Community Grid was “conceived by IBM as a philanthropic service to the science community,” says Ari Fishkind, a representative of IBM’s Corporate Citizenship Division. “At an investment cost to IBM of tens of millions of dollars, this resource has helped scientists avoid $340 million in supercomputing costs. Many researchers tell us that it typically saves them 100-200 years in computing time.”
All researchers that use World Community Grid make their results public so that the entire scientific community can benefit. IBM does not gain any rights to the research findings.
Saphire’s Lab has already mapped the physical form of the Ebola virus in 3-D images. “We’ve solved the structures that explain what the surface of Ebola virus looks like, how it attaches to and drives itself into cells, and how it behaves like a wolf in sheep’s clothing in hiding itself from an immune response,” she says.
The next step is to find an effective treatment for the virus, which has claimed nearly 8,000 lives and continues to ravage West Africa.
“We’re using those structures to galvanize an unprecedented global collaboration to make antibody therapeutics against the virus,” Saphire says. “These structures are such a compelling road map for where you should target antibodies to make cocktails like ZMapp [an experimental Ebola treatment] that we’ve been able to get every Ebola lab in the world onto one giant collaboration.”
Saphire believes that her lab’s 3-D images have enabled her to pinpoint a specific piece of the Ebola virus that is vulnerable to an antibody treatment. She calls her visual structures of Ebola “enemy reconnaissance.”
“The goal of my lab is to use structural biology to explain what the pieces of the virus look like and how they work,” she says. “And based on that structural information we’re able to determine where the weak points of the virus are and where we would hit it with a drug.”
Finding cures for viruses is a bit like solving a jigsaw puzzle. As proteins fold in specific ways, they produce specific functions. Antibodies are molecules with their own particular shapes, which need to be able to bond to virus proteins in order to neutralize their functions. The first target section of the Ebola virus that Saphire has isolated is the surface protein that is solely responsible for infecting human cells. If that surface can be rendered inert, Ebola will be unable to create new infections in humans.
And that’s where World Community Grid comes in. The combined processing power of volunteers’ computers around the world is now working on that problem. Using drug candidates from a range of Ebola labs, computers are solving complex equations to determine which drugs might bond best with that that surface protein.
“We have libraries and libraries of drug candidates,” says Saphire. “We have hundreds of thousands of chemical possibilities that we can screen with World Community Grid. We’re going to computationally screen a bunch of molecules and see what might fit in this particular piece of Ebola virus.”
Dr. Olson’s lab developed a piece of software for collecting the data called AutoDock, which also powers FightAIDS@Home. The software mathematically analyzes the target virus, in this case Ebola, against drug candidates in all possible orientations in order to find the best fit.
“That will winnow down which candidates look like they give us the most hope that we should try in real cells in real viruses in our wet lab,” says Saphire. “That saves us a ton of time and money in the wet lab trying to figure out how to make a drug.”
Results from the World Community Grid’s efforts are trickling in. Volunteers have already contributed four and a half years worth of joint computing time in a matter of weeks, but there is still a long way to go before Saphire’s lab has actionable information.
“In a couple of months we’ll have a good prioritized list of drugs to test in the wet lab,” she says. But of course any new computers added to the grid make the process faster and more accurate, as computers check each others’ work automatically.
Setting up your computer to contribute to Dr. Saphire’s research is easy to do. First, create an account on World Community Grid. Then select the projects you want to contribute to. Finally, download the World Community Grid software for your Windows, Mac, Linux, or Android device and log in with your World Community Grid account.
In addition, Saphire’s lab is also currently crowdfunding the salary for a computer scientist to make heads and tails of the immense data supplied by World Community Grid results—already over half a million individual computations. So if you can donate some cash on top of your unused processing power, be sure to do that as well.