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Virtual supercomputer joins TB fight

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Hundreds of thousands of volunteers are expected to contribute vast computing resources to aid the 'Help Stop TB' project.
Hundreds of thousands of volunteers are expected to contribute vast computing resources to aid the 'Help Stop TB' project.

Computing power is expected to boost research needed to combat tuberculosis (TB), one of the world's most deadly diseases.

IBM's World Community Grid and scientists at the University of Nottingham have launched a study to address the disease by inviting hundreds of thousands of volunteers to donate vast computing resources to aid this effort.

The IBM World Community Grid is a platform that allows volunteers to donate their devices' spare computing power to help scientists solve the world's biggest problems in health and sustainability. As a World Community Grid volunteer, a user's device performs research calculations when it's idle, helping scientists identify promising areas to study in the lab, bringing them closer to life-saving discoveries.

The new "Help Stop TB" project on IBM World Community Grid will model aspects of the behaviour of TB bacteria to better understand its potential vulnerabilities that new medicines may one day exploit.

Volunteers will make the processing power on their devices available, when otherwise not being used, to perform the millions of calculations necessary for these simulations. IBM believes crowdsourcing a virtual supercomputer in this manner to study the disease will provide results significantly faster and achieve greater results than relying on conventional computational resources typically available to researchers.

Slow killer

TB has plagued humans for thousands of years. Approximately one-third of the globe's human population harbours TB today and 1.5 million people died from it in 2014, prompting the World Health Organisation to rank TB alongside HIV as the world's deadliest infectious disease.

"My team will use World Community Grid to help science better understand the TB bacterium, so we can develop more effective treatments, and eventually eradicate this threat to human health," says Dr Anna Croft, lead researcher of the Help Stop TB project and associate professor, Faculty of Engineering at the University of Nottingham in the UK.

She points out that although several drugs and a partially effective vaccine have been developed to help combat TB, the bacterium can evolve to resist available medicine, particularly when patients interrupt or discontinue treatment, which often occurs when they do not have consistent access to medications and medical care.

According to Croft, nearly half of European cases are now resistant to at least one drug, and 4% of all cases worldwide are resistant to treatment regimens that combine drugs. HIV patients with weakened immune systems are especially vulnerable to TB, she adds.

"Tuberculosis can be a slow killer, often dormant for long periods of time before exploiting poor nutrition, old age or a weakened immune system to become active. It is most often spread through the air when an infected person coughs, sneezes, laughs or even talks. Symptoms can start with cough, weight loss, and fever, developing into breathing difficulties and violent coughs that bring up blood. Initially residing in the lungs, it can spread to, and cripple, other organs," Croft explains.

Virtual supercomputer

The World Community Grid was created in 2004 by IBM as part of its citizenship programme focused on innovation.

Hosted on IBM's SoftLayer cloud technology, the platform facilitates massive amounts of completely free computing power for scientists by harnessing the surplus cycle time of volunteers' computers and Android devices from all over the globe.

The combined power available on World Community Grid has created one of the most powerful and fastest virtual supercomputers on the planet.

"Thanks to World Community Grid's massive computational power, we can study many different mycolic acid structures instead of just a few," says Croft. "This type of analysis at this scale would otherwise be impossible."

More than three million computers and mobile devices used by nearly three-quarters of one million people globally and 470 institutions from 80 countries have contributed virtual supercomputing power that have fuelled more than two-dozen vitally important projects on World Community Grid over the last 11 years, IBM says.

Since the programme's inception, World Community Grid has enabled important scientific advances in areas such as cancer research, AIDS treatments, genetic mapping, solar energy and ecosystem preservation.

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