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Watson's win on Jeopardy! supports UTMB research

By UTMB Public Affairs — Published February 24, 2011

GALVESTON, Texas — Watson, Jeopardy! and dengue fever. For a contestant on the popular game show the correct answer would be: What is the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston?

IBM's Watson supercomputer may have stumbled with the pronunciation of dengue, but its win over human contestants in a recent Jeopardy! competition will help accelerate UTMB Health research to develop drugs to combat dengue, West Nile, and hepatitis C viruses. A portion of Watson's million-dollar prize will help fund UTMB's "Discovering Dengue Drugs — Together" project, a massive computational effort running jointly on IBM World Community Grid and supercomputers at the University of Texas at Austin.

"It has been very exciting to have two of the world's most advanced computing resources support our research to find cures for dengue disease," said Stan Watowich, associate professor in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology and lead scientist for UTMB's "Discovering Dengue Drugs — Together" project. "Now, with funding from IBM's Watson, the world's most advanced analytics computer system, we will be able to validate more rapidly our dengue drug discovery calculations and translate the most promising drug leads into clinical studies."

Almost half of the world's population is at risk for infection by dengue virus, and over 50 million people are infected each year. Annually, about 1 million people are treated for dengue fever and an additional 500,000 require intensive care for dengue hemorrhagic fever. The project at UTMB Health is working to develop drugs that cure people infected with dengue virus.

The project uses IBM World Community Grid, a distributed computing system that combines personal computers from around the world into a massive virtual supercomputer dedicated to solving complex humanitarian problems. Most personal computers have dormant periods throughout the day, when owners are at work or sleeping. Instead of sitting idle, World Community Grid asks volunteered computers to solve small pieces of big computational problems. In this way, challenging calculations can be divided among hundreds of thousands of networked personal computers, and the individual results returned to research scientists for reassembly.

UTMB is collaborating with other leading research institutions including the University of Chicago, UT Austin and IBM. The computational phase of this project examines millions of drug-like molecules and uses rigorous free energy calculations to identify molecules most likely to disrupt dengue, West Nile and hepatitis C viruses. These breakthrough calculations run 24/7 on the equivalent of 13,000 PCs. In the past 18 months, much of the estimated 20,000 years of computer time needed for this project have been completed.

Since the project's inception in 2008, several hundred potential dengue, West Nile and hepatitis C drug candidates have been identified from World Community Grid calculations. The donation from Watson's Jeopardy! winnings will support laboratory studies to determine whether the drug candidates found by computers truly stop virus replication and are safe and affordable cures for dengue, West Nile and hepatitis C diseases.

ABOUT UTMB: Established in 1891, Texas' first academic health center comprises four health sciences schools, three institutes for advanced study, a research enterprise that includes one of only two national laboratories dedicated to the safe study of infectious threats to human health, and a health system offering a full range of primary and specialized medical services throughout Galveston County and the Texas Gulf Coast region. UTMB is a component of the University of Texas System.

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