Researchers lean on IBM tech in bid to tackle autoimmune diseases

The $50 million Microbiome Immunity Project to examine bacteria in the body to better understand how they contribute to illnesses
By Bernie Monegain
12:07 PM
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A bacteria being devoured by a blue-colored human white blood cell. Photo via cdc.gov

Several scientific institutions are pooling their resources in hopes of discovering the root causes of autoimmune diseases, such as diabetes, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

They are banking on finding what triggers these diseases by examining the bacteria that resides in the human body.

It’s an ambitious project, and the researchers are enlisting the public's help for what they believe is the biggest study of the human microbiome ever. Microbiome refers to the bacteria that live in and on the human body – and are believed to affect health. 

Researchers will start by studying and mapping the bacteria found in the digestive system. They will use IBM’s World Community Grid, which provides free, crowd-sourced computing power. Anyone with a computer and an internet connection can join World Community Grid and sign up to contribute power to the Microbiome Immunity Project.

Researchers will tap the surplus processing power on volunteers' computers to conduct millions of virtual experiments. The experiments aim to map the three million bacterial genes found in the human microbiome and predict the structure of their associated proteins.
 
Scientists from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Massachusetts General Hospital, University of California San Diego, and the Simons Foundation’s Flatiron Institute are collaborating on the research.

The researchers figure that with a better understanding of the microbiome, scientists perhaps could more easily prevent and treat diseases.

To that end, researchers will analyze data from millions of these experiments and will make that data publicly available to other scientists. The goal is to advance scientific knowledge – and to ultimately find better treatments for autoimmune diseases, or perhaps even cures.

“This type of research on the human microbiome, on this scale, has not been done before,” said Ramnik Xavier, co-director of the Infectious Disease and Microbiome Program at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and chief of the gastrointestinal unit at Massachusetts General Hospital. “It’s only possible with massive computational power.”

Twitter: @Bernie_HITN
Email the writer: bernie.monegain@himssmedia.com