Distributed computing to be used for anthrax research

A special project to accelerate the hunt for a cure for anthrax by harnessing PCs around the globe using a distributed computing model was unveiled Wednesday. The goal behind the project: to shorten the time it takes to find an antidote for the deadly anthrax toxin.

In an announcement today, the National Foundation for Cancer Research (NFCR) announced that it has teamed up with the NFCR Center for Computational Drug Design at England's Oxford University, Microsoft Corp. and United Devices Inc. to create a system that uses spare computer processing cycles to do the tedious analysis of anthrax molecules.

Andy Prince, spokesman for Austin, Texas-based United Devices, said the Anthrax Research Project is being modeled after last year's "Cure Cancer With Your Computer" project, which used similar distributed computing technologies. That project now involves more than 1.3 million people, who downloaded a special screen saver that allows their computers to be used by scientists far away for cancer research in off-peak times.

Prince said the anthrax project will allow a molecular library of 3.5 billion anthrax molecules to be analyzed using computers around the world. Scientist have identified a protein in anthrax that increases its toxicity and will now search for a trigger to block that protein from its deadly mission, he said.

"Essentially, the molecules are drug candidates," he said.

After the screen saver is downloaded, a program called "THINK" analyzes the anthrax protein and structures, sends the results to computer servers in Europe, then gives the individual computer another protein to analyze. United Devices is providing the servers and other hardware for the analysis work.

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, according to a spokesman.

One of the most well-known distributed computing efforts is the SETI@home project (see story), 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.

Professor Graham Richards, director of the NFCR Center for Computational Drug Design at Oxford University, said in a statement that the distributed computing model should greatly lessen the research time needed to find a cure for anthrax.

"Particularly with anthrax and other related bioterrorist threats, speed to discovery is of the essence," he said. "Without this technology and support of the coalition, there would be no other way to tackle such a tremendous task."

Silas Deane, a spokesman for the Bethesda, Md.-based NFCR, called the distributed computing model a form of "e-philanthropy" where people can offer their unused computer cycles to researchers without even writing a check. "People don't have to give money anymore," Deane said. "They can give computer time that they're not using to help in the search for scientific goals."

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