UC San Diego helps in search for Zika treatment


Zika virus

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LA JOLLA, Calif. — The UC San Diego Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences announced Thursday the launch of a study that will use computers and mobile devices of volunteers to screen potential drug candidates for the Zika virus.

The OpenZika project will work with IBM’s World Community Grid, which provides massive amounts of free computing power to scientists. It does this by harnessing the unused power of volunteers’ computers and Android devices, according to UCSD.

Download IBM’s World Community Grid app

The grid will power virtual experiments on chemical compounds that could form the basis of antiviral drugs to treat the Zika virus, which came to the world’s attention earlier this year when some infected women in Brazil gave birth to babies with smaller heads than normal. The project will screen more than 20 million compounds from existing databases against models of Zika protein structures.

Scientists said using the IBM grid will take much less time than a traditional lab. Once the computer modeling phase of the project identifies promising candidate drugs, Jair Siqueira-Neto, an assistant professor in the Skaggs School of Pharmacy, will use robotic equipment to test them against the actual Zika virus.

“The best part of this project is that it’s truly open — we will share all of the data we gather with the research community and general public, further accelerating Zika virus research,” Siqueira-Neto said. “What’s more, researchers not already participating in OpenZika are invited to submit proposals to receive free computing power to support additional Zika projects.”

The first and only known transmission of the disease in San Diego County was in February when a man returned from a trip from Colombia and passed it to a woman through intimate contact, county health officials said. The California Department of Health said 11 travel-related local cases have been identified in the county in 2015-16 — one involving a nonresident.

Researchers at the UCSD School of Medicine reported earlier this month that the virus can stunt neonatal brain development by overly activating a molecule human cells normally use to defend against invading viruses.

Anyone with a computer or Android device is invited to join the OpenZika project as a “citizen scientist,” according to UCSD. Volunteers only need to run an app on their devices that automatically performs virtual experiments for scientists when their machines are idle.

OpenZika is led by the Federal University of Goias in Brazil, with support from the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation. Scientists at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School are also taking part.

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