Home computers help scientists

The collective power of hundreds of thousands of personal computers was first harnessed to search for extra terrestrial life. Now, it’s being utilized to analyse cancer and flu treatments.

In July, 1999, we ran a story about [email protected], a scientific experiment to analyse vast amounts of data generated by radio telescopes. Participants download a screensaver program that runs during their computer’s idle time and performs complex calculations.

Results are sent back to the project’s main computer via the Internet. The project’s goal (SETI is an acronym for Search for Extra Terrestrial Life) is to discover whether we are truly alone in the universe.

Processing medical data
One year later, the idea of using networks of personal computers (linked via the Internet) has been put to more productive use. Instead of looking for E.T. the Extra-terrestrial, volunteers around the world are signing on their computers to process data on everything from cancer
research to digital animation.

A company in Virginia called Parabon is collaborating with the U.S. National Cancer Institute’s molecular pharmacology lab, on a project to simulate how caer cells react to different drugs. The screensaver simulation program evaluates cancer treatments, helping select the best of the lot to be tried on real patients.

“It allows individuals to directly contribute to cancer research and may lead to important discoveries,” says Steven Armentrout, chief executive of Parabon.

Other uses
The company is also planning to use the process to study ways of reducing the side-effects of chemotherapy.Other companies are planning projects to evaluate anti-flu drugs and find the best ways to store nuclear waste.

If companies like these can enlist enough volunteers, computational projects that would otherwise take months could be completed in days. One company says that its “network” of 100,000 volunteered PC’s has three times the processing power of IBM’s famed “Asci White” supercomputer, which uses over 8,000 processors and can perform 12 trillion calculations per second.

The possibilities are truly limitless.