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Wired power of many aims to help health causes

Industry Standard
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By Jennifer Couzin

(IDG) -- For molecular biologist Arthur Olson, buying a supercomputer to research new AIDS drugs was out of the question. But since September the scientist at the Scripps Howard Institute in La Jolla, Calif., has been tapping the power of 26,000 computers around the world for free, thanks to a distributed computing service offered by Entropia, a San Diego startup.

People who download Entropia's FightAIDS@Home software give Olson's laboratory access to the idle processing power of their Internet-connected computers to match millions of potential drug compounds against different versions of the AIDS virus. That has quickened the pace of the scientists' research -- and hopefully the development of new AIDS drugs. "This gives us another tool in our arsenal," says Olson.

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FightAIDS@Home mimics a highly publicized effort launched two years ago to search for extraterrestrials. Designed by a University of California at Berkeley professor, SETI@home has signed up more than 3 million users. Both projects take advantage of the fact that people use only about 5 percent of their computer's processing power at any one time.

Culling excess power from many machines is a natural fit for certain types of biological research. As scientists increasingly handle large amounts of genetic and molecular data, one of the toughest problems is how to sift through it all without missing something crucial.

That challenge led Intel, Oxford University and United Devices, an Austin, Texas, distributed computing company, to launch a cancer research project. The goal: finding drug compounds that can disable proteins that promote cancer. Since the project's launch in April, more than 600,000 people have downloaded the program. The project is running through 3 billion combinations, trying to fit compounds with proteins, like a puzzle, to determine which might make effective drugs.

"The goal is to enable the pharmaceutical companies to use some of this" to develop medicines, says United Devices CEO Ed Hubbard, adding that distributed computing "can give you or the researcher access to many times the computational power of machines that cost hundreds of millions of dollars, for, in some cases, next to nothing."

Entropia and United Devices are pursuing similar projects for private companies, using the excess processing power from their clients' employees' computers.

Only scientific studies that can be parceled out are suitable for distributed computing. Others, like determining the structure of proteins, require supercomputing power concentrated in one machine. But for those projects that do qualify, hooking into a global network of desktop computers may speed science in a big way.








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