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Screensaver appeal in cancer battle

LONDON, England -- Scientists are asking computer users to help fight cancer by downloading a screensaver that emulates the way tumours develop.

The appeal was made after British scientists developed software for spare capacity on personal computers to run a model that screens molecules for potential anti-cancer activity.

Intel, which is sponsoring the project, hopes it will lead to the creation of a virtual super-computer that can screen up to 250 million chemicals and, in turn, improved treatments and drugs for cancer and other diseases, such as Parkinson's disease.

The project, a collaboration between Oxford University and an American technology company, could reach millions of desktop computers around the world.

Graham Richards, director of the Centre for Drug Discovery at Oxford University, said: "One in four people throughout the world contract some form of cancer, so nearly everyone will have a relative, friend or colleague who has suffered from the disease.

"People now have the opportunity to make a positive impact on the disease by donating their unused computer power, which will help us to accelerate our programme of research, and come up with new molecular candidates that could be developed into cancer drugs."

A U.S. charity, the National Foundation for Cancer Research and two American companies, United Devices and Intel, have also been involved in the development of the technique -- known as peer-to-peer (P2P) networking.

The screensaver can be downloaded free from the United Devices Web site.

Ed Hubbard, chief executive of United Devices, said: "Internet-distributed computing allows scientists and organisations to consider projects previously considered impossible due to resource constraints, including time and money.

"Essentially, the technology enables the first steps towards 'Star Trek' medicine."

How it works

As a first step to finding a cure for cancer the National Foundation for Cancer Research (NFCR) must evaluate the cancer fighting potential of hundreds of millions of individual molecules.

Studies estimate that an average office worker may only use up to 20% of their PC's power. The project aims to harness the untapped power to process information on the molecules before sending it back to a central United Devices server.

The downloaded UD agent runs quietly in the background without disturbing usual computer usage, performing a few of the millions of calculations required to analyse a molecule or measure a tiny temperature change.

Every subscribing computer will receive an initial package of 100 molecules over the internet, with a drug-design software program called Think and a model of a target protein known to be involved in causing cancer.

Think evaluates the cancer-fighting proteins by creating three-dimensional computer models of them testing their interactions with the target protein. The process calculates and studies the many possible ways the molecule could be twisted, or conformed, to possibly "dock" with the protein.

When a molecule successfully interacts with a protein, it will register as a hit and returned to the central server for investigation.

Scientists are initially looking for molecules that could inhibit the enzymes which stimulate the blood flow to tumours, and work against proteins responsible for cell growth and cell damage.

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United Devices
University of Oxford
National Cancer Institute

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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