First computational international effort to fight avian flu

Guilford 13 April 2006The Rothberg Institute for Childhood Diseases (TRI), a non-profit research institute devoted to discovering and developing drugs to treat childhood diseases, has released the first avian influenza target to its Drug Design and Optimization Lab (D2OL) distributed computing project. Anyone with a personal computer can contribute to this project simply by downloading a screensaver that works when their computer is idle. The D2OL community is growing rapidly and is currently comprised of nearly 80.000 volunteers and their computers in 93 countries working to identify potential new drugs for treating avian flu and other infectious diseases. By releasing this target the project is creating a platform to rapidly respond to changes in the flu virus.


Of all avian flu viruses that have infected humans, Avian Influenza A, or H5N1, has been found to be the most prevalent and the most deleterious to the health of its human hosts. It is, therefore, the most likely of the avian flu viruses to mutate sufficiently to facilitate person-to-person infection, and the world continues to monitor avian flu hotbeds in Asia and Europe for the potential nucleus of a worldwide H5N1 pandemic. The first avian flu target released for the D2OL project is the H5N1 neuraminidase, which aids in the pathology and spread of the disease.

The D2OL software models target proteins identified from the avian flu and simulates the binding of drug molecules with these targets in order to identify promising combinations that can potentially inhibit important disease pathways. The process is akin to searching through a collection of keys - drug candidates - to find the one that will fit a specific lock - target protein. D2OL's top candidates are studied in leading academic laboratories affiliated with the Rothberg Institute, including laboratories at Harvard, Yale, and Fox Chase Cancer Center.

The introduction of the first Avian Influenza target not only allows D2OL's international community to begin identifying potential drug treatments, but also establishes a flexible platform for quickly deploying new targets that may result from mutations in the virus. Various avian flu viruses are carried in the intestines of birds worldwide, generally not causing active illness in the animals. The viruses are extremely contagious among birds, though, and are especially damaging to domesticated birds.

As more domesticated birds, such as chickens, become infected, the risk to humans is greatly increased. While human-to-human transmission is relatively rare, and some currently available prescription drugs have shown promise in treating the disease in humans, the avian flu viruses, like other viruses, have proved to be adaptable. Thus, the ability to react quickly to new avian flu variants is of paramount importance, and D2OL provides a flexible platform for deploying new targets to tens of thousands of computers around the globe within minutes.

D2OL is a Grid computing project that harnesses volunteer computers from the on-line community. The project uses computers' idle time to create a supercomputer capable of using mathematical and statistical models to rapidly test the effectiveness of potential drugs to fight the avian influenza viruses. When installed on a computer, D2OL runs in the system tray and sends results back to the central servers at the Rothberg Institute when an Internet link is established.

The Rothberg Institute for Childhood Diseases is a private, non-profit research institution dedicated to discovering and developing therapeutics for tuberous sclerosis complex (TSC) and other childhood diseases. TSC is a genetic disorder as well as a Rosetta stone for understanding cancer and causes benign tumours in the brain, eyes, heart, kidney, skin, and lungs. The Rothberg Institute operates at the intersection of molecular biology, chemistry, nanotechnology, and computer science.

The Rothberg Institute collaborates with academic laboratories at Yale, Harvard, and the Fox Chase Cancer Institute through the Rothberg Award for Courage in Research. Free software to participate in the fight against avian flu is available at the D2OL Web site. More news from the Rothberg Institute can be found in the VMW December 2003 article The Rothberg Institute for Childhood Diseases launches first international effort to fight Malaria.

Leslie Versweyveld

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