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Computers worldwide speed search for anti-smallpox drugs


A major computer project has been launched today to analyse millions of different chemicals in the search for drugs to combat the bioterrorist threat of smallpox.

The smallpox research project will use the ‘screensaver downtime’ donated by up to two million computer users worldwide to screen 35 million compounds and identify those most likely to be suitable for drug development.

Currently no drugs are available to combat the smallpox virus after infection, and the only prevention is vaccination, with a vaccine known to have harmful side effects.

The Smallpox Research Grid Project involves scientists from the Universities of Oxford and Essex, the University of Western Ontario, biotechnology company Evotec OAI, and technology companies IBM, United Devices and Accelrys.

Professor Chris Reynolds from the Department of Biological Sciences at Essex explained: ‘New technology has given us a great opportunity to reduce the cost, and speed up the process, of developing new drugs. It is like trying to place a jigsaw piece when all the jigsaws in the world have been mixed up. The donated computer capacity allows pieces to be screened for those the right shape to block a key enzyme in the smallpox virus.’

This type of research has already been used successfully to accelerate the search for drugs to fight cancer. A human enzyme similar to one in the smallpox virus becomes unregulated when cancer develops. This means any compound that hits against the smallpox enzyme but not the human version may give rise to drugs which could combat a smallpox attack.

The project amounts to an initial screening step, narrowing down a list of potential drugs for smallpox from millions to just thousands, a more realistic number to test further in laboratories.

A new phase of the grid computing project was launched recently to refine the search for anti-cancer drugs. Volunteers who donate the spare capacity of their PCs are informed what project is running on their machine. To volunteer your PC, log on to and follow the instructions.

Kate Cleveland | alfa
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