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Smallpox project narrows targets for new drugs

LONDON, ON (Sept. 30, 2003) – An international consortium of researchers – including Robarts scientist and bioterrorism expert Dr. Grant McFadden – has completed a public service computing project to find new treatment options for the deadly smallpox virus.

The Smallpox Research Grid project used specialized computational software to screen the potential “fit” of approximately 35 million possible therapeutic molecules against portions of the protein structure of the smallpox virus in the search for good drug targets. The results of the Smallpox Research Grid project were delivered today to the U.S. Department of Defense at an event hosted by the British Embassy in Washington, D.C.

“What we’ve managed to do is narrow that huge number to a few thousand potential molecules that can be considered lead candidates for the next phase of research,” said Dr. McFadden, Co-director of the BioTherapeutics Research Group at Robarts and Canada Research Chair in Molecular Virology at The University of Western Ontario. “The next step will be to test these potential drugs in the lab for the ability to inhibit the viral enzyme, called topoisomerase, which was the target of the screen. Once this screen is complete, the short list of drug candidates that remains then needs to be tested in animals for the ability to inhibit the virus.”

Co-ordinated by United Devices of Austin, Texas, the project was powered through a massive computing “grid”, enabling millions of personal computer owners worldwide to contribute idle computing resources to create a virtual supercomputer capable of analyzing millions of molecules in a fraction of the time it would take in a laboratory. Volunteers from more than 190 countries donated their spare computer power at, the world’s largest public computing resource, and contributed over 39,000 years of computing time in less than six months.

“We know that ordinary people and corporations from virtually every country came together to assist the scientific team in this research,” said Tony Brenton, Deputy Head of Mission at the British Embassy. “This project, because of its sheer scale and power, has attracted the attention of both scientific and political leaders who are interested in understanding how the combination of private technology and public participation can enable similar lifesaving research.”

In addition to researchers at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, which funded the project, technologies and services provided by IBM, United Devices, Accelrys, Evotec OAI, University of Oxford, Robarts Research Institute, University of Western Ontario, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Research and Essex University were essential to the project.

“We are grateful to the sponsors, researchers, members and technology providers who facilitated this important research,” said Ed Hubbard, United Devices’ CEO. “This is the second time we have utilized the grid computing technology to accelerate important counter-bioterrorism research.”

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