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Computing grid hunts for bird flu cure

Grid of 2,000 computers looks for a potential virus inhibitor among known compounds.

Scientists in the United Kingdom and Asia have deployed a computing grid to find a potential cure for Avian flu.

The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) said Thursday that it put up a grid computing project, which was originally designed for particle physicists to perform data searches, for an international effort aimed at locating drug components to combat the virus H5N1, known as the Avian flu. The virus has taken a deadly toll on bird populations in Asia and Europe, and scientists fear it could spread to humans, causing a flu pandemic.

As part of the international collaboration, known simply as the "Grid," about 2,000 computers from various research labs were used throughout April to run a drug discovery application and analyze 30,000 different compounds for a potential virus inhibitor. Scientists are now reviewing results from the computer screening to predict which compounds and chemical fragments would be most effective at blocking the virus if it mutated, according to PPARC.

"With the help of the high-speed computing and huge data managing capabilities of the Grid, possible drug components can be screened and studied very rapidly by the available computer modeling applications," Ying-Ta Wu, biologist at the Genomics Research Center of the Academia Sinica in Taipei, said in a statement.

Wu, whose lab participated in Grid, added: "This will free up medicinal chemists' time to better respond to instant, large-scale threats."

The total computing power used during the four weeks in April was equivalent to the power used more than 100 years on a single PC. The application created more than 60,000 files with a data volume of 600 gigabytes, according to the researchers.

PPARC contributed to the international effort a computing grid initiative known as GridPP, which is a searchable database of particle physics experiments. It evolved to work within a larger grid computing project known as Enabling Grids for E-sciencE (EGEE) that lets scientists share resources and involves PCs at 11 research labs and universities. Alone, those PCs put in 100,000 hours of time searching for possible drug components to work against Avian flu.

"With these results, the Grid demonstrates that it is a powerful and reliable resource for scientists, opening up new research possibilities and improving existing methods," said Viviane Reding, European Commissioner for Information Society and Media.

A host of scientists joined together to deploy the global drug discovery application. They included the Academia Sinica Grid Computing Team in Taiwan; Corpuscular Physics Laboratory of Clermont-Ferrand in France; and the Institute for Biomedical Technologies, CNR, in Italy.