Computing a Cure for HIV

HIV/AIDS has caused an estimated 36 million deaths, according to the World Health Organization and remains a major health issue worldwide. Today, about 35 million people are affected by HIV including more than a million individuals in the U.S.

The tendency of HIV to mutate and resist drugs has made it particularly difficult to eradicate. Some treatments have shown progress in slowing or even stopping the progress of the virus, but no cure or vaccine has been discovered that can truly stamp out the disease.

In the last decade, scientists have begun using supercomputers in the fight against HIV. The National Science Foundation (NSF) at www.nsf.gov is using some of the nation’s most powerful supercomputers to help teams of researchers push the limits on what is known about HIV and how to treat it.

One of the research projects using computers came to the rescue after scientists repeatedly failed to piece together the structure of a protein-cutting enzyme that plays an important role in HIV. They called on the players of FoldIt, an online puzzle video game to find a solution.

Using FoldIt, scientists were able to determine how the enzyme folded and solve the mystery of its structure. With further help from the game players, researchers were able to identify target drugs to neutralize the enzyme.

FoldIt is part of an experimental research project supported by NSF and developed by the University of Washington’s Center for Game Science in collaboration with the UW Department of Biochemistry.

In another research effort, doctors know that there are many different strains of HIV, drugs do not have the same effects on all people, subtle genetic differences exist between strains, and individuals can experience a range of treatment outcomes.

Using NSF supercomputers to study the problem, researchers from University College, London and Rutgers University were able to determine the shape of a key protein involved in the HIV infection in individual patients and then rank the drug molecules most likely to block the activity.

There were seven research projects involving computers to study HIV. For more information, email Aaron Dubrow at adubrow@nsf.gov.

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