Combining Computers For A Cure

The Giants' Barry Bonds smiles during a news conference after hitting his 756th career home run against the Washington Nationals.
AP Photo/Ben Margot
A group of scientists and major technology corporations asked people around the world
Tuesday to use their personal computers to help develop a treatment for anthrax.

Members of the Anthrax Research Project, including chip maker Intel Corp., software giant Microsoft Corp., computing services provider United Devices Inc., the National Foundation for Cancer Research and Oxford University, announced the effort in a press release.

The project is based on the premise that the average personal computer uses between 13 percent and 18 percent of its processing power at any given time. It employs "peer-to-peer" technology, in which millions of computers can share files over the Internet.

Individuals can participate in the project by downloading a screen saver at and donating their personal computer's spare resources to build a virtual supercomputer capable of analyzing billions of molecules in a fraction of the time it would take in a laboratory, the group said.

The screen saver runs whenever computation resources are available. Once processing is complete, the program sends the results back to the United Devices' data center and requests a new packet of data the next time the user connects to the Internet.

The United Devices program incorporates a comprehensive system of security and privacy technologies to protect user privacy, the group said.

If the project attracts more than 160,000 participants, it can give researchers more computational power than the world's 10 best supercomputers combined, said United Devices spokesman Andy Prince.

"The screen-saver doesn't cost you anything, and at least you're taking part in something, adding your bit," said Graham Richards, the Oxford professor leading the study.

Anthrax was used in tainted letters through the U.S. mail in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, killing five people and infecting 13 others since early October.

The initiative is modeled on the Intel-United Devices Cancer Research Project, which utilized the computing power of 1.3 million personal computers around the world to find a molecule that might counteract a protein involved in the growth of leukemia.

Scientists have discovered that the anthrax toxin is made up of three proteins that are not toxic on their own but become toxic after binding together.

The Oxford scientists want to scan 3.5 billion molecular compounds to see if any can block the process and keep the toxin from reproducing.

Results of the project will be made available to the United States, Great Britain and other governments for further development and research.

"Without this technology and support of the coalition, there would be no other way to tackle such a tremendous task." Graham Richards, scientific director of the project at Oxford, said in the press release.

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