Pioneering a Molecular Approach to Fighting AIDS

World Community Grid is being featured at the 20th International AIDS Conference which begins today in Melbourne, Australia. Dr. Arthur Olson, FightAIDS@Home principal investigator, shares his perspective on how World Community Grid is helping his team develop therapies and a potential cure for AIDS.

The Scripps Research Institute’s FightAIDS@Home initiative is a large-scale computational research project whose goal is to use our knowledge of the molecular biology of the AIDS virus HIV to help defeat the AIDS epidemic. We rely on World Community Grid to provide massive computational power donated by people around the world to speed our research. The “virtual supercomputer” of World Community Grid enables us to model the known atomic structures of HIV molecules to help us design new drugs that could disrupt the function of these molecules. World Community Grid is an essential tool in our quest to understand and subvert the HIV virus’s ability to infect, spread and develop resistance to drug therapies.

Since the early 1980s – when AIDS was first recognized as a new epidemic and a serious threat to human health – our ability to combat the HIV virus has evolved. Using what we call “structure-based drug discovery,” researchers have been able to use information about HIV’s molecular component to design drugs to defeat it. Critical to this process has been our ability to develop and deploy advanced computational models to help us predict how certain chemical compounds could affect the HIV virus. The development of our AutoDock modelling application – combined with the computational power of World Community Grid – represents a significant breakthrough in our ability to fight HIV.

By the mid 1990s, the first structure-based HIV protease inhibitors were approved for the treatment of AIDS. These inhibitors enabled the development of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), which in turn resulted in a rapid decline of AIDS deaths where such treatment was available. In the intervening years, thanks in part to the U.S. National Institute of General Medical Sciences AIDS-related Structural Biology Program, we have learned a lot about the molecular structure of HIV. But the more we understand the structure of the virus, the more complex our computational models need to be to unlock the secrets of HIV.

World Community Grid has enabled our research to progress well beyond what we could have dreamed of when we started our HIV research in the early 1990s. Through our FightAIDS@Home project, we can screen millions of chemical compounds to evaluate their effectiveness against HIV target proteins – including those known to be drug-resistant. By deploying these and other methods, we have significantly increased our understanding of HIV and its ability to evolve to resist treatment. Using these computational capabilities, we have just begun working with an HIV Cure researcher to help us move beyond treatment in search of a cure.