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Project targets avian influenza

Distributed computing fighting bird flu

A research institute is harnessing the power of thousands of computers over the internet to investigate potential drug treatments for deadly avian influenza.

The Rothberg Institute for Childhood Diseases, based in Connecticut, said last week that it had detailed the first mission for volunteers participating in the distributed-computing project.

Volunteers download a screensaver program that simulates the binding of drug molecules with proteins - referred to as "targets" - in avian flu, the institute said.

The screensaver, which is visible in a computer's program tray, kicks in when the computer is idle, the institute said. The institute likens the process to hunting through a batch of keys - meaning the drugs - to find the right one that fits a protein in the virus.

The results are sent back to the Rothberg Institute when the computer is connected to the internet.

The institute said distributed-computing allows for the deployment of new targets to tens of thousands of computers running the program, collectively called the D2OL (Drug Design and Optimization Lab), within minutes.

The institute said 80,000 volunteers in 93 countries are participating in the project so far.

The institute said the first avian flu target is the H5N1 neuraminidase, which aids in the spread of the disease. Avian Influenza A, also known as H5N1, is the most dangerous one that humans have contracted so far, the institute said.

Officials fear H5N1 is the most likely one to mutate into a form that humans could contract more easily. So far, human-to-human infections have been rare, the institute said.

Governments have ordered widespread culls of chickens in Europe and Asia to halt the spread, but it's believed migrating birds have brought the disease to new areas.

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