Distributed computing to be used for anthrax research

By Peter Sayer
Wednesday, 20 February, 2002


In your idle moments, your computer can now join the search for a cure for anthrax.

Finding the cure joins the goals of a distributed computing system created last April to search for a cure for cancer, the project's organisers have announced.

Distributed computing systems use the computational power of thousands of idle PCs to solve certain mathematical problems by breaking them down into many small, independent calculations. Such systems have previously been used to crack encryption codes and to analyze radio signals for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence.

In April 2001, a new distributed computing project took shape, supported by Intel, Microsoft, United Devices, the US National Foundation for Cancer Research, and Oxford University. Its goal was to find a cure for cancer.

Now the project's sponsors have introduced a new project: finding a cure for anthrax.

The search for both cures involves a process called virtual screening, examining mathematical models of molecules to see whether they can interfere with chemical reactions within the human body.

To take part, volunteers download a screen saver application from Intel's web site. The software obtains a batch of molecular model data from a central server at United Devices, and performs calculations on it whenever the computer is idle. When the batch is complete, the results are sent back to the server and a new batch of data r equested.

Not all medical research can be performed by computer, but the researchers at Oxford University discovered recently that the harmful effects of anthrax are most likely the results of a single interaction between a toxin produced by the bacteria and a ring of seven protein molecules found in the human body. If another molecule is found that blocks or interferes with this interaction, it can potentially be used to neutralise the effects of the anthrax toxin. Many molecules can be swiftly ruled out by the distributed computing system, speeding the search for a cure.

The project is expected to last three to six months, though research on a cure will continue after that. Microsoft and Intel are donating several hundreds of thousands of dollars to the project.

One of the most well-known distributed computing efforts is the SETI@home project, which uses spare computing cycles of machines around the world to search for intelligent life on other planets by seeking out radio waves far away from Earth.

More information about the distributed computing project can be found at http://www.intel.com/cure/ and about Oxford University's anthrax research at http://www.chem.ox.ac.uk/anthrax/.

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