Rutgers researchers seek computing help in quest for Zika treatment

    A screenshot of the World Community Grid website.

    A screenshot of the World Community Grid website.

    Researchers at Rutgers University want to borrow a bit of your idle computing power.

    Spread by mosquito bites, Zika virus infection during pregnancy can result in a serious birth defect. There’s no vaccine to prevent or medicine to cure Zika, although the infection often clears the body in seven to 21 days.

    Scientists at Rutgers University New Jersey Medical School are part of a supercomputing project aiming to kick-start the drug-discovery process.

    Professor Joel Freundlich’s lab is conducting virtual experiments to pinpoint existing drugs or compounds that could “crack” Zika.

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    “Sort of a key that can open up a lock,” he said. “A lock is essentially a vulnerability of the virus that we can try to exploit through a drug.”

    Those who want to help by volunteering some of their computing power can download an application to their smart phone and other devices.

    The OpenZika project is based on IBM’s World Community Grid.

    Alex Perryman, a research-teaching specialist with Rutgers’ Center for Emerging and Reemerging Pathogens, said it might cost you a bit of extra electricity but otherwise it’s free.

    “You can be surfing online or listening to some music and the rest of your CPU power can help us screen these compounds to see if they can be used against Zika,” Perryman said.

    Computational experiments could let researchers evaluate millions or tens of millions of compounds.

    “The idea here, really, is that you can do things more efficiently, effectively, to find the beginnings for drug discovery,” Freundlich said.

    In a brick-and-mortar high-throughput screening lab, “to even be able to handle 100,000 compounds,  it requires very expensive robots, buying the compounds is expensive, it takes a lot more time effort and money to do it in the wet lab,” Perryman said.

    After narrowing down the number of candidate drugs — and some preliminary chemistry work — the next step is to test them against the Zika virus in a “wet lab,” one equipped with all the resources needed for hands-on scientific research and experimentation.

    WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal