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Science & Technology
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/.