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, toldMashable.
“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.