IBM, partners build grid for smallpox

IBM Corp. along with two partners announced on Wednesday a global research effort that will focus on developing new drugs to combat the smallpox virus post infection. The project will employ a huge computing grid designed to let up to 2 million users contribute their idle computing resources to the effort.

The Smallpox Research Grid Project, which will combine the efforts of IBM, United Devices and Accelrys, will help feed leading screening researchers at Oxford and Essex Universities in the U.K. as well as smallpox experts at the Robarts Research Institute and Sloan Kettering Cancer Center with the computing resources they need to help identify new anti-viral drugs.

The Grid Project, which goes live Wednesday, is based on existing technologies and services from IBM, United Devices, Accelrys, and Evotec OAI. All the technologies involved are available and in commercial use by a range of pharmaceutical and biotechnology drug companies and largely being used to improve and accelerate drug discovery and development processes. The grid will enable researchers to pool computing resources including processing, network bandwidth, and storage capacity, a project spokesman said.

When the 2 million PCs are linked, they would essentially serve as a virtual supercomputer capable of delivering 1,100 teraflops at peak performance, or about 30 times the power of the fastest supercomputer on Top500.org's list.

"We think the exciting thing here is we are deploying technology that will be applicable not only for finding a cure for smallpox, but in the future can be easily adapted for other challenges. For instance, one other project under way is one doing research on the chemistry on Anthrax," said Michael R. Nelson, director for IBM's Internet Technology and Strategy. "We can see other projects in the commercial sector that need enormous amounts of number crunching also taking advantage of this, such as gas and oil exploration,'' he said.

The coordinator of all aspects of the project is United Devices, whose Global MetaProcessor platform will harvest the idle power of all participating PCs and servers. The project will be powered by IBM's eServer p690 servers and its Shark Enterprise Storage Server running under Big Blue's DB2 database. The database will be capable of handling 15 million SQL queries a day, along with managing all aspects of the data.

Accelrys, a software developer specializing in the life sciences, is supplying docking and scoring software that will be used to screen compounds for the project. Its LigandFit program employs a three-dimensional model to analyze molecular data allowing scientists to more accurately predict and prioritize drug candidates for experimentation and drug development. Evotec OAI, an outsourcing service provider for drug discovery and development process is providing drug modeling expertise in order to identify and define active sites.

The United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases is also participating. It will manage the project for the Department of Defense as well as process the most promising drug-like molecular candidates with the goal of developing them to combat the use of smallpox as a bioterrorist threat.

Those wanting to take part in the Grid Project can just download a screensaver at www.grid.org. The screensaver will unobtrusively donate the computer's idle processing power and link it into the worldwide Grid. Once processing on an idle system is complete, the program will send results back to United Devices' datacenter and will request new data to analyze. The individual system then returns the results the next time the user connects to the Internet.

The results gathered from the project will be then from delivered to the United States Department of Defense's Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Presently there is no specific treatment for smallpox post infection, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) The only prevention is vaccination however routine inoculation was discontinued following the WHO effort to eradicate smallpox.

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