The fight against H5N1, or Asian bird flu as it is more commonly known, is continuing in the laboratories across Europe and Asia. The latest salvo has commandeered over 40 000 computers from across 45 countries. United and utilising the latest in computer technology, these researchers are boosting the pace of antiviral drug discovery.
Christened 'Enabling Grids for E-sciencE' (EGGEE), the project has taken ordinary household PCs and transformed them into a super-sized supercomputer capable of performing complex computations in a fraction of the time. The 'supercomputer' was made possible thanks to the computing grid which was created between over 40 000 computers.
|CERN computer grid.|
Specially designed software harnesses the combined power of the PCs and allows researchers to compute the probability that a drug-like molecule will dock with active sites on the virus and thus inhibit its action. The results of these computations, or silico-screening as they are called, are enabling researchers to predict and identify which compounds are most effective at blocking the virus. In this manner, the computers are accelerating the discovery of novel potent inhibitors by minimising the non-productive trial-and-error approach in a laboratory.
According to Dr Ying-Ta Wu, a leading biologist at the Genomics Research Center of the Academia Sinica, computing grids like EGEE are the fastest and cheapest way to discover new drug leads.
'We are using EGEE to find new molecules that can inhibit the activities of the influenza virus,' Dr Ying-Ta Wu explains. 'During previous challenges using the EGEE grid, we discovered about 200 molecules with the potential to become drugs against bird flu.'
Recently released data from the Peking University in Beijing, China, where research is currently under way, shows that the H5N1 bird-flu virus can pass through the placenta of pregnant women to the unborn foetus. It has now also been revealed that the bird flu is capable of infecting organs other than the lungs in adults. Based on this new information, analysts have concluded that a rapid response to any pandemic outbreak of the virus would be essential if there is to be any hope of controlling it.
Currently the EGEE Grid consists of 41 000 CPUs which are available to users 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The grid's capacity is 5 million gigabytes as well as tapes MSS of storage, and is capable of maintaining 100 000 concurrent jobs. The opportunities that will open up once such resources become available will ultimately change the way scientific research takes place.