EU grid computing offers new hope in race against bird flu

A team of European and Asian researchers has launched a new attack against the deadly bird flu virus, harnessing the combined power of more than 40,000 computers across 45 countries to boost
the pace of anti-viral drug discovery.

Funded by the EU, the Enabling Grids for E-sciencE (EGEE) project is a computing grid that connects ordinary personal computers (PCs) to form a super-sized supercomputer that is being used to
analyse the potential of more than 500,000 drug-like molecules.

This effort comes as newly released data by Peking University in Beijing, China, shows that the H5N1 bird flu virus can pass through the placenta of pregnant women to the unborn foetus, and can
infect organs other than the lungs in adults.

A rapid response to any pandemic outbreak of the virus would be essential to its control.

Dr Ying-Ta Wu, a biologist at the Genomics Research Centre of Academia Sinica, says computing grids like EGEE are the fastest and cheapest way to discover new drug leads.

‘We are using EGEE to find new molecules that can inhibit the activities of the influenza virus,’ Dr Ying-Ta Wu explains. ‘During previous challenges using the EGEE grid we discovered about 200
molecules with the potential to become drugs against bird flu.’

The EGEE computing grid powers drug discovery software that allows researchers to compute the probability that a drug-like molecule will dock with active sites on the virus and thus inhibit its
action. Using the results of in silico screening, researchers can predict which compounds are most effective at blocking the virus. This accelerates the discovery of novel potent inhibitors by
minimising the non-productive trial-and-error approach used in a laboratory.

‘Asian flu remains a threat to world health and we are well aware that any pandemic could quickly spread throughout Europe,’ says Viviane Reding, European Commissioner for Information Society
and Media. ‘I am pleased that the European project EGEE has found such an important application for computer grid technology as speeding-up drug discovery against neglected and emerging
diseases. Collaboration between Europe and Asia is essential if we are to address worldwide threats to public health’.

Speaking at this year’s EGEE conference, Ulf Dahlsten, the Director of ‘Emerging Technologies and Infrastructures’ at the European Commission’s Information Society and Media DG, used the
example of EGEE’s success with bird flu to illustrate the potential contributions of e-infrastructures to science. ‘Computer Grids have achieved a productivity increase of more than 6,000% in
the identification of potential new drugs,’ he said.

‘300,000 molecules have already been screened using the EGEE grid. Of these, 123 potential inhibitors were identified, of which seven have now been shown to act as inhibitors in in-vitro
laboratory tests. This is a 6% success rate compared to typical values of around 0.1% using classical drug discovery methods,’ the director added.

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