OpenZika Project Uses Public to Help Find Zika Virus Cure

OpenZika offers an opportunity for anyone to help find a cure for the Zika virus through a website.

By Michael Hill

Billions of hours of unused computing power every day in your house, at your office and on your Android smartphones and tablets, all across the globe, including at a Rutgers New Jersey Medical School Lab.

“That’s actually a representation of the target,” said Dr. Alex Perryman.

Research Teaching Specialist Dr. Perryman explains this computer has been programmed to do to the Zika virus what it has done for other diseases.

“We’re hoping to find compounds that either could be a drug — because we’re looking at current drugs as well in these calculations — but we’re looking at millions more compounds that are more likely to be a starting point, a foothold which we can then grow and change and evolve the compound to hopefully lay the foundation for a real cure for Zika,” he said.

“I think the way we look at this is that you’re trying to find a door to unlock a cure for the Zika virus and we are looking at tens of millions of different keys,” said Joel Freundlich, associate professor of pharmacology, physiology and medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.

Professor Freundlich and Perryman are part of the OpenZika project on IBM’s World Community Grid. They hope their results eventually will wind up in a lab’s test tubes. They’ve partnered with Dr. Carolina Horta who’s leading the research at a university in Brazil — the epicenter of the Zika virus where Aedes aegypti mosquitoes and sexual contact have spread the virus, leading to babies born with neurological disorders. Just last month for the first time the CDC confirmed the link.

The U.S. has no reported cases of mosquitoes spreading the infection here but it does have about 500 reported cases from overseas travel.

The doctors consider this a race against time.

“The quicker we can find a drug or something that we can develop in to a drug the more people we can help save,” Perryman said.

“It’s not only a race to find a starting point, a first drug against infection, but then because of the issue of drug resistance and other complexities because of the infection you’re looking at a constant race to keep up with the bug in terms of it evolving,” Freundlich said.

What OpenZika offers is almost an opportunity for anyone to help find a cure for the Zika virus.

Through a website, you can sign up to run calculations on your computer or Android device.

“And this is great because the public can get involved also. They can feel empowered,” Freundlich said.

“While you’re doing something else — watching a movie, playing a video game, listening to music or surfing online — you could be running calculations to help us,” Perryman said.

The researchers anticipate computer users will join this global discovery effort to increase the odds of finding a drug to cure the Zika virus.