Volunteer grid tackles smallpox research

Researchers have narrowed the search for a new treatment for smallpox using the computing power of 2.5 million PCs donated by...

Researchers have narrowed the search for a new treatment for smallpox using the computing power of 2.5 million PCs donated by volunteers from around the world.

Smallpox, although eliminated since 1977, is now seen as a possible terrorist weapon. The existing 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.

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.

Officials from the University of Oxford and three companies that worked on the project - grid computing computing United Devices, scientific computing vendor Accelrys and IBM - presented the results of the project to the US Department of Defense.

"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 organised 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.

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 [email protected] project, which uses screen-saver software to analyze radio telescope data in the search for extraterrestrial life.

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 1,000-node cluster would've taken seven years, said Ed Hubbard, chief executive officer of United Devices.

The results of the project will be used to further research a drug treatment for smallpox.

Grant Gross writes for IDG News Service

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