Computers curing cancer?
Computer users can also participate for this cause
From Diana J. Choyce
Apr 16 - 22, 2001
Ever wonder what your computer does when you're not
in front of the keyboard? Not to worry, as far as I know it just runs
a cool screensaver. Unless you're one of those control types who turns
it off when not in use. Which is sad really, just think of the fun in
sitting and watching the virtual fish swim across the screen with your
grandchild! But I digress. For those of us who choose to leave our
computers on all day, there is a lot of wasted computing time when
we're off in the real world. If you're into efficient time management,
here's an idea to use your downtime wisely. In fact, you could even be
part of finding a cure for cancer. Sound amazing?
Last week a new kind of screensaver was introduced
that could take cancer research to new heights. Oxford University, UK,
the National Foundation for Cancer Research, and two US companies,
United Devices and Intel, are behind a project to create a virtual
"supercomputer" to do just that. By allowing our computers
to "compute" information for the University, it could save
decades of time that would normally be needed to come up with answers.
Professor Graham Richards, director of the Centre for Drug Discovery
at Oxford University, said: "One in four people throughout the
world contract some form of cancer, so nearly everyone will have a
relative, friend or colleague who has suffered or is suffering from
the disease. "People now have the opportunity to make a positive
impact on the disease by donating their unused computer power, which
will enable us to accelerate our programme of research, and come up
with many new molecular candidates that could be developed into cancer
drugs." They predict participation from as many as 6 million
computer users worldwide. Ed Hubbard, CEO of United Devices, said:
"Internet-distributed computing allows scientists and
organizations to consider projects previously considered impossible
due to resource constraints, including time and money.
"Essentially, the technology enables the first steps towards Star
Trek medicine." Oxford University hopes to screen 250 million
molecules by this technique, known as peer-to-peer (P2P) networking.
"The sheer size of the project, and the energy and computing
facilities required, would make it impossible without this method of
distributed computing; even using a super-computer a researcher could
not otherwise hope to see a project like this completed during their
lifetime,'' the university said in a statement.
The process is relatively simple and certainly
painless. Each computer user who agrees to the program will download a
package of 100 molecules from the internet. Together with a drug
design software application called Think, and a model of a target
protein that is known to be a catalyst in causing cancer. Think will
then evaluate the molecules for any cancer fighting potential by
creating a 3-D computer model and testing their interactions with the
target protein. When a molecule successfully interacts with a protein,
it will register as a hit and will be sent back to a central server
for further investigation. All information transmitted to and from the
program is encrypted and has a digital signature to ensure no bogus
commands or bad data are processed on users' computers, organizers
said. The scientists are initially looking for molecules which could
inhibit the enzymes which stimulate the blood flow to tumours, and
work against proteins which are responsible for cell growth and cell
damage. Scientists also hope that the project will continually expand
as new drug targets are identified. Organizers say the machines'
combined processing powers will be 10 times more powerful than
existing supercomputers. With a price tag of $1 million, the program
is about 100 times cheaper than existing supercomputers. "That
will enable us to ask questions and hopefully answer questions that
people have never considered attacking just because the computing
requirements were outside the realm of possibilities,'' said Intel
chief executive Craig Barrett, whose father died of cancer and whose
son and grandson have successfully battled the disease.
If you are interested in getting involved in this
project, here is some relevant information. Computer system
requirements include a Pentium or quivalent processor, at least 48 MB
of RAM, a 500 MB Hard Drive with 20 MB of space available for use, 8
bit graphics display, an internet connection, and Windows OS. Several
websites can be visited for more information. To join the project and
download the software go to www.ud.com, or the Intel partner site at
www.intel.com/cure. Both United Devices and Intel are involved in this
new peer to peer computing venture. Intel calls it the IntelÆ
Philanthropic Peer-to-Peer Program. Intel's website states that it
offers an ideal example of the value of peer-to-peer computing and
demonstrates that peer-to-peer technology can dramatically accelerate
the discovery of important medical breakthroughs. This effort is not
only leading scientific computing into a new era, but has also helped
launch the socially significant concept of PC Philanthropy.
On a side note, if you're interested in a more
"creative" peer to peer computing project, you may want to
look into the Seti @ Home project. Seti, or the Search for
Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, is a similar project that uses space
CPU cycles — in Seti's case to look for signs of alien activity. To
date, nearly three million people in over 224 countries have installed
the Seti software, contributing over 600,000 years of computing time.
The website is located at setiathome.ssl.berkeley.edu/.