Supercomputer helps cut drug research time

Summary:Case study: Crunching data for the Diamond Light super microscope

Case study: Crunching data for the Diamond Light super microscope

Scientists are making the most of supercomputing technology to carry out research that could radically speed up the development of drugs.

The Diamond Light synchrotron - which is based in the Diamond Light Source facility on the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus in Didcot, South Oxfordshire - is a light-based microscope that allows researchers to view cells, atoms and other structures in minute detail.

Scientists at the facility are using an IBM supercomputer - developed and maintained by high performance computing integrator OCF - to dramatically cut analysis time from weeks to minutes.

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The microscope uses light generated by electrons that are fired at close to the speed of light around a donut-shaped vacuum chamber.

As they accelerate the electrons produce ultraviolet and infrared light and X-rays a million times more intense than those generated by a hospital X-ray machine.

These intense beams of light - or 'beam lines' - can penetrate deep inside matter so scientists can see down to atomic level, analyse how drugs react with cells or proteins and create three-dimensional images.

One of the first research projects to make use of the supercomputer was a study into more effective drugs to combat certain kinds of cancer.

The facility currently has seven beam lines, with 15 more due to be brought in over the next five years. The supercomputer is currently attached to three beam lines.

The high performance cluster reduces data analysis time, meaning scientists can reduce the number of visits to the facility by carrying out a greater amount of work per session.

Alun Ashton, co-ordinator of scientific computing at Diamond Light, told silicon.com: "We're trying to make the facility work a lot faster. It has to be there exactly when we need it."

He added scientists can not only turn research around quicker but also have the chance to repeat experiments or try different approaches in a single visit.

The technology can speed up the development of potentially life-saving drugs and medicines and improve understanding of the immune system.

Ashton said the synchrotron produces 80Mb of data per second when running at its peak, meaning grid computing is sometimes required to cope with the data.

The supercomputer has been in place for around four months and uses 24 IBM System x3655 servers with AMD dual core processors.

The synchrotron became operational in January this year and is funded by the government through the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils along with the Wellcome Trust.

Topics: Tech Industry

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