Deadly diseases outbreaks always seem to be grabbing the headlines, and many readers may be wondering if there is anything they can do to help counter these terrible threats.
Sure, you could donate to health charities or research institutions, or maybe even lobby the government for more health spending, but there’s a more direct way you can help.
You could participate in various research projects which harness the unused processing power in millions of idle PCs located in homes and offices.
Pharmaceutical companies and research institutions are using an innovation called grid computing (also known as distributed computing), which runs life sciences research on millions of Internet-connected PCs owned by volunteers from around the world, thus creating a kind of “decentralised supercomputer.”
There are currently grid computing projects to combat AIDS, cancer, SARS, avian flu, Ebola, smallpox, anthrax and other afflictions.
Anyone with a relatively fast computer and Internet access can take part in these projects merely by downloading and installing a small program (see Getting Involved).
While the use of grid computing for finding new drugs is relatively new, the underlying research methods are already well established. Scientists have used computer simulations in the drug discovery process for many years.
First, possible drug targets are identified from disease-causing microbes. Then scientists employ a process called virtual screening (also called silico screening or computational screening) which simulates the binding of millions of different drug molecules against a specific microbe, and identifies promising combinations that can potentially kill the microbe.
The approach is analogous to testing many keys to identify the one that will work with a specific lock – only in this case there are millions upon millions of molecular keys.
Until recently, researchers could only rely on expensive supercomputers or Unix clusters to attain the processing power needed to run these complex and time-consuming simulations.
By taking advantage of grid technology, researchers hope to tap into the combined power of thousands or even millions of PCs, resulting in significant time savings.
Better yet, all this processing power can be had at almost no cost if researchers can recruit volunteers from around the world.
“It’s only fitting that a distributed computer platform allows global participation to potentially prevent a global pandemic,” says Wolfgang Hinz, head of computational chemistry at The Rothberg Institute in Connecticut, United States.
The Institute has set up a grid computing project as part of its evaluation of potential drug candidates against various infectious diseases.
Proponents of grid computing say the technology has revolutionised computational biology and other life sciences; while solution providers are making inroads into financial services, engineering, and chemical research.
ET phone home
The concept of grid computing with home PCs is not new either. It first emerged in the late 1990s through a project aimed at finding signs of alien intelligence.
The SETI@home project used Internet-connected computers to analyse radio telescope data in the search for extraterrestrial life (SETI).
The project is still ongoing and currently has more than 670,000 participants, making it one of the largest grid computing projects in the world.
Dr David Anderson, director of SETI@home, said the project grew out of a realisation that the average computer user only uses a fraction of the processing power in today’s machines.
The computing needs of users have not grown to match their increasingly powerful PCs, he said in an interview with Astrobiology magazine.
Consider, for example, that an “entry level” PC nowadays uses a minimum Intel Celeron D 331 2.66GHz processor or its equivalent AMD Sempron 3200+ AM2 processor.
“In the 1980s and early 1990s, there was a gradual transition from a situation where computers were busy most or all of the time – like shared mainframes, or early slow PCs that laboured to keep up with basic tasks – to a situation where they were almost never busy,” said Anderson.
Today, most people still use their PCs for wordprocessing, checking e-mail and web surfing – hardly taxing such powerful processors.
All that spare processing power is ideal for a grid computing project, be it the search for aliens or cures for diseases.
Some way to go
The potential power of grid computing was clearly demonstrated at the conclusion of the Anthrax Research Project in 2002, in which 3.57 billion molecules were screened for suitability as a treatment for advanced-stage anthrax.
Dr Graham Richards, chairman of the Chemistry Department at Oxford University, said the project was completed in only 24 days, and called the results “unprecedented.”
“Had we done this using traditional methods, it would have taken years instead of less than four weeks,” he said.
Still, participants in various life sciences projects should not expect quick cures to materialise from the current simulations. Virtual screening is only one of the early stages in a long progression of processes required to discover a new drug or therapy.
Once such drug candidates are identified using computational methods, they can be chemically synthesised in an actual laboratory, and are subjected to component analyses and tested in a battery of cell cultures.
This is then followed by years of testing for toxicology and side effects – a good biochemical reaction is not the sole requirement.
Very few molecules make it to the final stage of testing, which involves human trials conducted according to rigorous FDA (Food and Drug Administration) guidelines in the United States, for instance.
If successful, the compound is finally released as a prescription drug.
Due to the necessarily long validation process, it is not clear at this point whether drug candidates produced from grid computing will ultimately result in cures or vaccines.
Still, most researchers agree that grid computing can significantly increase the speed and scope of molecular research.
“Many pharmaceutical companies are starting to realise that grid computing can be an important source of competitive advantage in drug research and development,” said Piush Patel, United Devices’ director of global grid services, in an interview with GRIDtoday.
Better yet, it gives ordinary citizens a chance to contribute directly to disease-fighting efforts and scientific research, instead of merely living in fear of an invisible and unpredictable threat.