Grid computing project hones smallpox research

A team of tech companies and scientists yesterday presented the Defense Department with the results of a distributed-computing project to find a treatment for smallpox.

Using a downloadable screensaver and data from www.grid.org, the Smallpox Research Grid Project harnessed the idle cycles of 2.5 million PCs in 190 countries. (Click for July 7 GCN story)

The grid effort, after 39,000 years' worth of donated CPU time studying 35 million molecules, resulted in the identification of the most-promising 44 drug candidates that could be studied further in traditional laboratory experiments.

Each of the 35 million molecules had at least 750 different shapes, resulting in more than 26 billion combinations that had to be studied, said Scott D. Kahn, chief science officer of Accelrys Inc. of San Diego.

'When this project was first explained to me, I thought it was rather Jules Verne-ish,' said Army Brig. Gen. Patricia L. Nilo, acting deputy assistant for chemical and biological defense. Nilo, who works in the office of the undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, accepted the results on behalf of DOD.

The more ways that the United States can protect itself from bioterrorism agents, the less likely such agents will be used against it, Nilo said.

The Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases will work with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on further studies of the potential antidotes, Nilo said.

Collectively, the 2.5 million PCs running the grid screensaver constituted the world's largest supercomputer, said Todd S. Ramsey, IBM Corp.'s general manager for global government industry.

Graham Richards, chairman of the chemistry department at Oxford University in England, said he hopes that the grid software can be used to search for treatments for other diseases, including drug-resistant tuberculosis, severe acute respiratory syndrome and botulism.

Grid.org has received many requests to join such research efforts, said Ed Hubbard, chief executive officer of United Devices Inc. of Austin, Texas, which spearheaded the smallpox study. Eventually, however, grid computing will need a sustainable funding model other than ad hoc company sponsorship in order to remain successful, he said.

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