Massive grid computing project aims for smallpox cure

A massive grid computing network is being created to use the idle computing cycles in millions of computers around the world to find a cure for smallpox.

Like similar grid computing efforts used for cancer research and in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI@Home), the Smallpox Research Grid Project allows volunteers to donate the unused processing power in their computers to assist in the research.

While smallpox has largely been eradicated since 1977, fears that terrorists could unleash the smallpox virus in an attack have fueled renewed plans to reinstitute vaccinations against the disease and find a cure for it.

The project, being undertaken by IBM, grid computing vendor United Devices and scientific software vendor Accelrys, will allow an analysis of some 35 million drug compounds against nine smallpox proteins to try to find a way to stop the replication of the virus. By using millions of computers during their unused states, a virtual supercomputer of immense size can be created, helping to shrink years' worth of research into what could be weeks of analysis.

"It dramatically cuts down the amount of laboratory work that's needed," said Mike Nelson, director of Internet technology strategy at IBM. By harnessing the combined power of millions of desktop PCs, Macintosh computers, laptops and powerful servers, researchers hope to use the information to find the drug or combination of drugs that will unlock the secrets of the deadly disease.

"We're harvesting a huge amount of power here," Nelson said. "This is going to have a real impact for real people."

Organizers hope to have as many as 5 million participants allowing their computers to be used for the work.

Participants in the project will have to download a special screen-saver application that will allow their computers to be used during idle times. The research will be broken up into millions of small pieces for analysis and then reassembled later to provide results.

That's the same technology used in the well-known SETI project, which is seeking information on potential civilizations that might be in the outer fringes of our galaxy.

United Devices already has some 2 million computer users donating their unused processor power to other research projects, including recent efforts to find treatments for anthrax poisoning. The anthrax research took 23 days to analyze 35 million compounds against one anthrax protein, Nelson said.

The new grid system will use IBM's DB2 database application on IBM eServer p690 machines along with United Devices' Global MetaProcessor application.

Accelrys is providing software that scores the compounds as they are screened by the computers on the grid, while its LigandFit software predicts and prioritizes any leading drug candidates for additional testing and experimentation. Also involved is Evotec OAI, a drug discovery outsourcing company in Abingdon, England, as well as the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute and England's University of Oxford and Essex University.

The results of the study will be given to the U.S. Department of Defense.

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