UPDATED: Astellas Pharma taps supercomputer for IT-driven drug discovery

One of Japan's largest pharma outfits has commissioned one of the world's largest supercomputers to aid efforts to overcome one of the largest global health threats. Astellas Pharma's big idea is to hunt down drugs against illnesses caused by dengue virus, a major tropical disease without therapeutic answers.

In an agreement with Tokyo Institute of Technology, Astellas plans to use Tokyo Tech's TSUBAME2.0 supercomputer to rapidly scour knowledge sources such as patent records and then quickly screen pharma compounds in silico. The effort calls for advancing new treatments against dengue-caused illnesses such as dengue fever, a so-called neglected tropical disease (NTD) with no marketed drugs and few promising compounds in the works.

As supercomputers go, the TSUBAME2.0 pioneered petaflop computing in Japan in 2010 but has since been eclipsed in processing speed by faster computers such as Oak Ridge's Titan, the world's No. 1 supercomputer as of November. Nevertheless, Tokyo Tech's computer is an extremely powerful tool and the Astellas collaboration marks another important move to discover drugs against neglected diseases that impact many of the world's poorest populations.

To be clear, supercomputers have never been able to improve the efficiency of drug discovery without lots of scientific expertise from human brains. In the case of the Astellas/Tokyo Tech collaboration, researchers from the drugmaker will be contributing key inputs to inform in-silico searches for promising drug candidates against dengue diseases.

After largely neglecting dengue and malaria for decades, global pharma heavyweights have stepped up their efforts with help from nonprofits to bolster research of NTD therapies. Last year the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, other global groups and a crew of Big Pharma outfits pledged funding toward making progress with 10 tropical diseases by 2020.

Astellas wasn't listed among those large drugmakers, but the company has made infectious diseases research one of the cornerstones of its business strategy. And CEO Yoshihiko Hatanaka wants his company to beef up its use of IT to succeed, as last year his group struck a deal with Tokyo Tech to use TSUBAME2.0 to hunt down drugs against diseases from protozoan parasites.

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