PC users enlisted to fight cancer

A distributed computing project at Oxford University will let PC owners use their wasted CPU cycles to find potential cancer-fighting drugs
Written by Graeme Wearden, Contributor

Scientists at Oxford University are hoping to recruit at least one million personal computer users willing to run an application that could find a cure for cancer.

The project is due to be officially launched in California today. It is backed by Intel, US charity the National Foundation for Cancer Research, and software developer United Devices. Like the SETI project -- probably the most famous example of "distributed computing" -- people taking part have to install software on their PC which only runs when the computer is idle. The application, developed by United Devices, will use spare CPU (central processing unit) cycles to see if certain molecules could work as anti-cancer drugs.

Users can run application whenever there is spare processing power, or only as a screensaver -- when the PC is not in use. The researchers behind the project claim that it could speed up research into the fight against cancer by several years. Since reporting on the project early on Tuesday morning, BBC Radio 5 was swamped with calls from listeners keen to take part.

"The aim of the project is to find new molecules that can kill cancerous cells, or at least stop their growth," said Dr Keith Davies of Oxford University, speaking on Radio 5 this morning. "We're expecting up to a million people to sign up," he said, adding that the project is looking for more users.

By involving so much computing power, the scientists hope to screen 250 million potential cancer drug molecules to see if any of them are capable of bonding with -- and thus possibly disabling -- one of 16 protein molecules that are known to have a role in cancer. Each user will be sent 100 molecules and one target protein, and software that will calculate three-dimensional models of each molecule to see if it can adopt a shape allowing it to bind to the target.

The software is available for download at www.ud.com. The researches expect that up to 100,000 molecules will prove to be potentially useful in the fight against cancer. These possible drugs will then be tested further.

SETI, or the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, is a similar project that uses space CPU cycles -- in SETI's case to look for signs of alien activity. To date, nearly three million people have installed the SETI software, contributing over 600,000 years of computing time.

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