Researchers seek to harness power of idle PCs to find anthrax cure

By Brian Bergstein The Associated Press
Tuesday January 22, 2002

SAN JOSE — A coalition of scientists and technology companies is asking people around the world to use their computers’ extra processing power to help search for a cure for anthrax. 

The project follows similar efforts to use “distributed computing” to hunt for extraterrestrial life and a cure for cancer. 

This effort is being launched Tuesday to help Oxford University researchers find potential ways to treat anthrax that is beyond the stage at which antibiotics can work. It comes as fighting anthrax and other agents of bioterrorism has become an international priority. 

The project is based on the premise that the average personal computer uses between 13 percent and 18 percent of its processing power at any given time. Like Napster, it employs “peer-to-peer” technology, in which millions of computers can share files over the Internet. 

Participants download a screen-saver that runs whenever their computers have resources to spare, and uses that power to perform computations for the project. When the user connects to the Internet, the computer sends data back to a central hub and gets another assignment. 

The company that designed the program, United Devices Inc. of Austin, Texas, promises that no personal information on participants’ PCs can be compromised while they take part. 

With enough participants, the project gives researchers 10 times more power than the world’s best supercomputer, said Graham Richards, the Oxford professor leading the study. 

“The screen-saver doesn’t cost you anything, and at least you’re taking part in something, adding your bit,” he said. 

Scientists have discovered that the anthrax toxin is made up of three proteins — which are not toxic on their own but become so after binding together. 

The Oxford scientists want to scan 3.5 billion molecular compounds to see if any can block the process and keep the toxin from reproducing. 

The results, which could serve as blueprints for late-stage anthrax drugs, will be turned over to the U.S. and British governments, Richards said. 

The project is funded by Intel Corp. and Microsoft Corp. and supported by the National Foundation for Cancer Research. 

A similar program launched last April, to help Richards’ team find a molecule that might counteract a protein involved in the growth of leukemia, is harnessing the power of 1.3 million PCs around the world. 

“We’re now in a new era of computing directed at improving the quality of life,” said Pat Gelsinger, chief technology officer at Santa Clara-based Intel. 


On the Net: 

Screen-saver download site: http://www.intel.com/cure 

Richards’ cancer project: http://www.chem.ox.ac.uk/curecancer.html