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How your smartphone can help find a cure for Zika

When your laptop is sitting idly on your desk or your smartphone is tucked snugly in your pocket, the devices could be powering a worldwide effort to find a cure for the Zika virus.

OpenZika, a project on IBM’s World Community Grid, crowdsources the spare computing power of thousands of devices to help scientists look for possible treatments to combat Zika, a dangerous mosquito-borne disease spreading at unprecedented rates in the Americas and Caribbean islands.

At least four cases of Zika in Florida were likely caused by bites from local mosquitoes, marking the first time Zika was found to be transmitted locally in the continental United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed Friday.

Zika, which can also spread through sex, can cause birth defects and brain damage in children whose mothers were infected during pregnancy.

The OpenZika team is using the virtual supercomputer to sort through millions of chemical compounds to find ones that could potentially block Zika’s proteins — the parts that allow the virus to survive in infected people and spread throughout the body.

Scientists in Brazil, the epicenter of the Zika crisis, and the U.S. are now doing virtual experiments on molecules that are already found in drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or deemed safe for use by pregnant women.

The idea is to weed out thousands of ineffective compounds and create a narrow pool of possible candidates, which scientists could then study in real-world labs and eventually test in clinical drug trials.

“The goal would be to find a molecule that interferes with one or more of the proteins in the virus,” Sean Ekins, a British pharmacologist who convened the OpenZika team, told Mashable.

“Then if someone contracts the virus, we can give them the drug as soon as they realize they’ve been bitten by a mosquito,” said Ekins, who is also the CEO of Collaborations Pharmaceuticals Inc. near Raleigh, North Carolina.

Their findings could advance research in not only the Zika virus but also other diseases spread by aedes aegypti mosquitoes, including dengue fever, yellow fever and chikungunya.

No vaccine or treatment for Zika exists right now. Researchers around the world are racing to develop solutions to stop the spread of the mysterious disease, a quest that could take years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

The World Health Organization estimates Zika could infect millions of people in dozens of countries. 

The CDC said more than 1,650 cases of Zika have been reported in the U.S. But all of those cases — except the four confirmed in Florida — were from travelers returning home after visiting other countries with Zika outbreaks.

While the reason for the outbreak is still unclear, the threat of Zika and other mosquito-borne diseases is growing in general partly because of global warming, climate scientists say.

In the U.S., for instance, warmer temperatures and thicker humidity since the 1980s has boosted the number of days with ideal conditions for mosquitoes. This raises the risk of infectious bites, Climate Central, a nonprofit news organization, reported this week.

“As the climate warms and humidity increases across the nation, the risk of mosquito-borne diseases, like Zika, is becoming more prevalent for Americans,” according to the report.

Despite the threat, U.S. policymakers have yet to free up more funding to fight the disease. 

A House of Representatives bill to provide $1.1 billion for Zika research failed in the Senate in mid-July, shortly before Congress started its seven-week recess. The White House warned the funding shortage could delay or stall vaccine development and make it harder to track any spread of the virus.

In the absence of federal funding, philanthropic initiatives like OpenZika are helping to fill the research gaps.

OpenZika launched in May, and since then, more than 50,000 volunteers worldwide have donated the equivalent of roughly 4,000 years’ worth of computing time from their PCs, Macs and Android devices. 

Ekins and his team of Brazilian and U.S. scientists have so far conducted nearly 18,000 virtual experiments — a feat he said would have otherwise taken researchers years and millions of dollars to complete without a supercomputer.

To join the World Community Grid, volunteers install a basic toolkit. IBM says the software is “dumb:” it can only determine if the computer is available, run the specific algorithms it’s been assigned, and transfer the results to the project’s servers.

The software can’t access or share a device’s personal files, IBM says.

It can only download research tasks and upload results when a device is connected to a wireless network, so it won’t use up a smartphone’s mobile data plan. The software also won’t drain your battery; it only runs if the device is connected to a power source.

“A lot of people volunteer their time to work on projects, and a lot of people donate cash. But what people also have is the unused cycle time on their individual devices,” Stan Litow, IBM’s vice president of corporate citizenship and corporate affairs, told Mashable

“Here’s something that is an asset to the researchers, and it doesn’t really cost you anything,” he added.

The World Community Grid isn’t limited to Zika research. Scientists have also used the 12-year-old initiative to identify new drug candidates for the childhood cancer neuroblastoma, discover new compounds for photovoltaics, and find ways to use nanotechnology to produce clean drinking water.

IBM said its research partners have published more than 35 peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals based on their research with the supercomputer.

The OpenZika project could play a key role in accelerating research on antiviral treatments for Zika and other mosquito-borne diseases, outside experts said.

“This may intensify that work,” Janet Smith, director of the Center for Structural Biology at the University of Michigan’s Life Sciences Institute, told Mashable. “It looks like a good idea.”

Smith recently led a research team that was able to identify and map out the tiny fingerprints that only a Zika molecule has. 

The discovery, reported this week, may help distinguish Zika molecules from other similar viruses like West Nile and dengue fever, which in turn could help pregnant women figure out if they’ve been affected with Zika in the past or during pregnancy, she said.

Still, Smith said the race to develop antiviral drugs for Zika — which OpenZika hopes to do — has its limits from a public health perspective.

For instance, if a pregnant woman realizes she’s already infected with Zika, an antiviral drug might not be able to protect her unborn child from developing birth defects or brain disorders.

“It seems to me that it might be more important to come up with a vaccine, so that you would be protected,” Smith said. 

Paul Roepe, who co-directs the Georgetown Center for Infectious Disease in Washington, expressed a similar concern.

While the OpenZika project is an “admirable effort, and an important concept,” he said that finding vaccines to stop people from contracting Zika in the first place would be more beneficial than the yearslong effort to develop treatments. 

Even better than vaccines is stopping mosquitoes from spawning in the first place, he said in a phone interview.

“It’s a bigger bang for your buck, too. Eliminate mosquitoes, you eliminate four of these diseases,” Roepe said, referring to Zika, dengue fever, yellow fever and Chikungunya. 

“The battle is really with the mosquitoes, it’s not even necessarily with the drugs and vaccines,” he added.

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