Three faculty members were honored with SMU’s 2018 Thomas W. Tunks Distinguished University Citizen Award at the Faculty Breakfast held Saturday, May 19 before Commencement. This year’s recipients are:
Alan Brown, Psychology, Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences
Pia Vogel, Biological Sciences, Dedman College of Humanities and Science
The award, given by the Office of the Provost, honors three faculty members each year for service and activities that benefit students and the University’s academic mission and “who have demonstrated outstanding citizenship through dedicated service to the University and its governance.”
Formerly the Distinguished University Citizen Award, the honor was renamed in 2014 for Tunks, a professor of music education, former associate provost and founding Faculty-in-Residence in the University’s Residential Commons.
What would be the impact if humans could harness the resources of massive online communities to fight disease? SMU faculty members have developed a technology that gives video gamers the power to fight disease through data – and the entire University community is invited to participate in its online launch.
Wise and Vogel have tapped the high-performance computing power of SMU’s Maneframe II, one of the most powerful academic supercomputers in the nation. Yet a network of gamers can crunch massive amounts of data during routine gameplay by pairing two powerful weapons: human intuition, and the massive computing power of networked gaming machine processors. Taking this research to the gaming community will more than double the amount of machine processing power attacking the problem.
Viewers can watch popular Minecraft streamers GhostfromTexas, Direwolf20, TangoTek and impulseSV demonstrate the high technology and the serious fun of games that help researchers fight disease. In addition, casual and committed gamers can join in through a modified version of the popular Minecraft “Bed Wars” designed to find new cancer therapies – all during regular gameplay.
The massive computational power of an online gaming community has even more clout than supercomputers in the fight against cancer, according to SMU biochemical researchers and video game developers. The two groups are partnering with the world’s vast network of gamers in hopes of discovering a new cancer-fighting drug.
With 122 million copies of the game sold worldwide and more than 55 million active players each month as of February 2017, Vogel and Wise expect deep inroads in their quest to narrow the search for chemical compounds that improve the effectiveness of chemotherapy drugs.
“Crowdsourcing as well as computational power may help us narrow down our search and give us better chances at selecting a drug that will be successful,” said Vogel. “And gamers can take pride in knowing they’ve helped find answers to an important medical problem.”
Up to now, Wise and Vogel have tapped the high-performance computing power of SMU’s Maneframe, one of the most powerful academic supercomputers in the nation. With ManeFrame, Wise and Vogel have sorted through millions of compounds that have the potential to work. Now, the biochemists say, it’s time to take that research to the next level — crowdsourced computing.
A network of gamers can crunch massive amounts of data during routine gameplay by pairing two powerful weapons: the best of human intuition combined with the massive computing power of networked gaming machine processors.
Taking their research to the gaming community will more than double the amount of machine processing power attacking their research problem.
“With the distributed computing of the actual game clients, we can theoretically have much more computing power than even the supercomputer here at SMU,” said Clark, who is also an adjunct research associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. In March, SMU Guildhall was named No. 1 among the world’s Top 25 Graduate Schools for Video Game Design by The Princeton Review.
“If we take a small percentage of the computing power from 25,000 gamers playing our mod we can match ManeFrame’s 120 teraflops of processing power,” Clark said. “Integrating with the Minecraft community should allow us to double the computing power of that supercomputer.”
Even more importantly, the gaming community adds another important component — human intuition.
Wise believes there’s a lot of brainpower eager to be tapped in the gaming community. And human brains, when tackling a problem or faced with a challenge, can make creative and intuitive leaps that machines can’t.
“What if we learn things that we never would have learned any other way? And even if it doesn’t work it’s still a good idea and the kids will still get their endorphin kicks playing the game,” Wise said. “It also raises awareness of the research. Gamers will be saying ‘Mom, don’t tell me to go to bed, I’m doing scientific research.’”
SMU biologists Pia Vogel and John Wise are using the computational power of the University’s high-performance supercomputer to screen millions of drug compounds, in search of one that will aid in the fight against recurring cancer.
Both teach in SMU’s Department of Biological Sciences: Vogel is an associate professor and director of SMU’s Center for Drug Discovery, Design and Delivery; Wise is a research associate professor.
Together, they are seeking a compound that can be developed into a drug that re-enables chemotherapy when cancer recurs and chemotherapy appears no longer effective.
In an interview for the SMU Research blog, Vogel and Wise discuss their quest, made possible by the massive computational power supplied by supercomputers — a technique not possible even a decade ago.
Q: You’re searching for a cancer drug that provides hope for chemotherapy failure? Vogel: Yes. Since the 1970s it’s been known that a sort of sump pump, the protein called P-glycoprotein, is most likely responsible for the failure of many chemotherapies — the drug is being pumped out of cancer cells by this sump pump that occurs naturally within all cells, even cancer cells.
Q: Tell us about P-glycoprotein.
Wise: This particular protein is one of nature’s great solutions to the problem of getting toxic things out of the cell. When a toxic substance enters a cell, the protein pumps it out.
This process may become a problem, however, once a cancer patient has been treated with chemotherapy, and appears to be cured. If the cancer later returns, the cancer cells may express more P-glycoprotein than cells normally would. For that reason, chemotherapy is no longer effective because the protein considers it a “toxin” and pumps it out of the cells before the chemotherapy can destroy the cancerous cell.
Theoretically, if we can knock out the sump-pump proteins, then all those cancer chemotherapies that don’t work anymore, will work again.
Q: How does the sump pump work?
Wise: P-glycoprotein has a generic binding site for drugs. When the drug binds, that activates the part of the protein that uses the energy in ATP energy molecules by breaking the ATP down. This release of energy from ATP then moves the drug from one side of the protein to the other. It turns out that the “other side” of the protein is on the outside of the cell, so the drug has just been pumped out of the cell. The process takes only a fraction of a second and moves the drug from inside the cell, where it would kill the cancerous cell, to the outside where it is essentially harmless to the cancer.
So nature’s kind of outfoxing us here, because the pump has this beautiful generic toxin-binding site that allows the cells to survive. The downside is in cancer chemotherapy. Here the “toxin” is actually the drug we are hoping will kill the cancer and it will also be pumped out. So what we are doing is we’re looking for drugs that will temporarily inhibit the pump. What we’re hoping for is a new drug that stops the sump pump in the cancer cell so that the cancer chemotherapy can remain in the cell so it can kill the cancer.
Q: Tell us about the search.
Wise: Everything that lives has a version of this type of protein. So there are evolutionary connections between bacterial versions of this protein and the human versions. They all seem to work the same way, and are close in structure and function.
No one has actually determined the structure of the human P-glycoprotein directly. We don’t know what it looks like. Relying on these evolutionary relationships and with our understanding of how proteins are put together, I’ve deduced a structure of the human protein. We then use computer programs to model the protein in a way that brings the static picture of the human pump to life in the computer.
This is a very different tack than has been used historically in the field of protein structure biochemistry. Historically, proteins are very often viewed as static images, even though we know that in reality these proteins move and are dynamic.
Using simulation software (Forcefield Molecular Dynamics, a freely downloadable software developed by researchers at the University of Illinois), we can physically build these molecules in the computer, in silico, and computationally we can model a variety of conditions: We can raise the temperature to 37 degrees centigrade, we can have the right pH, the right salts and all the right conditions, just like in a wet lab experiment. We can watch them thermally move and we can watch them relax.
The software is good enough that the model will relax and move according to the laws of physics and biochemistry. In this way we can see how these compounds interact with the protein in a dynamic way, not just in a snapshot way.
Q: How many screenings have you carried out on the supercomputer?
Wise: So far we’ve run about 8.8 million computational hours since August 2009, and screened roughly 8 million drugs. We are currently screening about 50,000 drugs per day on SMU’s High Performance Computer.
Vogel: We found a couple hundred compounds that were interesting, and so far we chose about 30 of those to screen in the lab. From those, we found a handful of compounds that do inhibit the protein. So we were very thrilled about that. Now we’re going back into the models that John has created and we’re looking for other compounds that might be able to throw a stick in the pump’s mechanism. We’re going at it in a selective way, so we don’t waste money with huge high-throughput screening assays in the lab.
Q: What have you learned so far?
Wise: This has been a good proof-of-principle. We’ve seen that running the compounds through the computational model is an effective way to rapidly and economically screen massive numbers of compounds to find a small number that can then be tested in the wet lab.
Q: Why is this kind of research possible now?
Wise: There have been huge increases in computational power in recent years. Ten years ago you couldn’t dock 8 million drugs — there just wasn’t enough computational power. Now SMU owns enough to do that.
Anthony Cortese, Sociology, Dedman College, organized and moderated a session on “Race, Social, and Gender Inequality” at the 2009 annual meetings of the Pacific Sociological Association, which took place April 8-11 in San Diego, California.
Pia Vogel, Biological Sciences, Dedman College, was co-moderator for panel disussions on cancer biology and career opportunities at a Houston conference, “Frontiers of Cancer Research: Biology, Emerging Technologies and Therapeutics,” sponsored by The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas. The Academy was founded in 2004 to provide broader recognition of the state’s top achievers in medicine, engineering and science, and to build a stronger identity for Texas as a center of achievement in these fields. Members include Texas Nobel Laureates and more than 200 National Academy members.
Amy Hand, a Dedman College student double-majoring in physics and mathematics, also has been accepted to the NSF REU program for Summer 2009. She will do her research at CREOL – The College of Optics and Photonics at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.
Statistical Science Chair Wayne Woodward was honored as the 2006-07 United Methodist Church University Scholar/Teacher of the Year at SMU’s fall General Faculty Meeting Aug. 29. President R. Gerald Turner updated the faculty on important developments in campus life and the status of the George W. Bush presidential library complex. More under the link.