PC Grid Powers Search for Smallpox Cure

Using the computing power of 2.5 million PCs donated by volunteers from around the world, researchers have narrowed the search for a new treatment for smallpox, now seen as a possible terrorist weapon, to 44 drug molecules that may render the smallpox protein inactive.

The volunteered computing power, set up in a grid through grid.org, contributed more than 250,000 years of computing time in the eight-month Smallpox Research Grid Project, project leaders said. Officials from the University of Oxford and three companies that worked on the project--grid computing vendor United Devices, scientific computing vendor Accelrys, and IBM--presented the results of the project to the U.S. Department of Defense during an announcement at the British embassy in Washington, D.C., Tuesday.

Computing a Treatment

"It's so much computing power that most people who do this work can't get their heads around it," said Scott Kahn, chief science officer at Accelrys, of the 2.5 million volunteer computers organized through grid.org. "You can do things that weren't possible before."

The project screened 35 million potential drug molecules against nine models of the smallpox protein to determine if any of the molecules were able to treat the smallpox protein inactive. From those 35 million molecules, the project, using PCs from volunteers in 190 nations, narrowed the list to 44 that looked most promising and could be used in further smallpox research.

A World Health Organization vaccination campaign eliminated smallpox as an active disease in 1977, but stocks of the disease still survive, and DOD and others fear the potential for terrorists using smallpox as a weapon. The current smallpox vaccine may produce serious side effects, including death in rare cases, and many people, including young children and pregnant mothers, are advised not to be vaccinated.

Volunteer Power

The smallpox results would have taken years to complete with the computing power available at most companies or universities, organizers said, but the volunteer project at grid.org, the largest public computing research organization, completed the work in a fraction of that time. Volunteers at grid.org donate their computers' unused processing power to a variety of projects, by downloading a piece of software that taps their computers' unused power. The grid.org project is similar to the SETI@home project, which uses screen-saver software to analyze radio telescope data in the search for extraterrestrial life.

"Two and half million people volunteered to give up their computers," said Todd Ramsey, general manager of global government industry at IBM. "There was no boss telling them to do this, there was no politician standing up and saying do this, this was all kind of word of mouth. Collectively, they created the largest supercomputer around, which took years off the analysis to come to this conclusion."

The grid.org volunteers have been previously used to research cures for cancer and anthrax. A search for an anthrax drug target in early 2002 took 24 days, while a 1000-node cluster would've taken seven years, said Ed Hubbard, chief executive officer of United Devices.

One Giant Leap

The results of the project will be used to further research a drug treatment for smallpox, both in the U.S. military and in the civilian world, said Brigadier General Patrica Nilo, with the U.S. Army's Chemical Corps. Nilo said the DOD, which helped sponsor the project, would turn over the results of the research to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention so that civilian researchers could use the results.

Nilo wondered if the grid.org project was real when it was first explained to her as a tool to fight bioterrorism, she said. "You're really turning science fiction into science fact," she said to organizers. "It's an energy out there that can do nothing but good, not only for us at the DOD but for mankind."

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