Many people might think that Tuberculosis (TB) has been conquered, yet about one third of the globe's human population harbors TB today and 1.5 million people died from it in 2014, prompting the World Health Organization to rank TB alongside HIV as the world's deadliest infectious disease. Although several drugs and a partially effective vaccine have been developed to help combat TB, the TB bacterium can evolve to resist available medicine, particularly when patients interrupt or discontinue treatment. Nearly half of European cases are now resistant to at least one drug, and 4 percent of all cases worldwide are resistant to treatment regimens that combine drugs. HIV patients with weakened immune systems are approximately 30 times more likely to contract TB.
The tuberculosis bacterium has a coating that shields it from many drugs and the patient's immune system. Among the fats, sugars and proteins in this coat are fatty molecules called mycolic acids. The Help Stop TB project will use the surplus computing power donated by IBM's World Community Grid members to simulate the behavior and chemical properties of mycolic acids to better understand how they protect the TB bacteria. Scientists hope to use the results to eventually develop better treatments for this deadly disease, particularly those that evade TB cell wall defenses.
Citizen scientists can help researchers by signing their computer up for IBM's World Community Grid to become part of a crowdsourced, virtual supercomputer that performs millions of computations. These computations will model aspects of tuberculosis bacteria behavior to better understand its potential vulnerabilities that new medicines may one day exploit. Volunteers make the processing power on their devices available when otherwise not being used—say, between keystrokes, during a coffee break, or overnight—to perform the calculations necessary for these simulations. Volunteers download an app from IBM's World Community Grid to their PC or Mac; it recognizes when the machine isn't being used and then it gets to work crunching numbers, automatically stopping when the machine is needed for normal use. It's safe, unobtrusive and puts otherwise wasted electric power to good use. Crowdsourcing a virtual supercomputer provides faster results than relying on conventional computational resources typically available to researchers.