Idle computers offer hope to solve cancer's mysteries through Grid computing project

Austin 23 June 2008A biomedical engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin is using a concept called "Grid computing" to allow the average person to donate idle computer time in a global effort to fight cancer. Muhammad Zaman, assistant professor in biomedical engineering, recently introduced Cellular Environment in Living Systems @Home or CELS@Home for short. The programme already has more than 1000 computer users worldwide contributing to the project. And the numbers keep growing.

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The idea is based on what is called Grid computing. Instead of using local computing resources, which are almost always limited, Grid computing allows Internet users worldwide to contribute their idle computer time, creating a "virtual" supercomputer to solve a difficult problem. In this case, the Grid computing programme is calculating cellular interactions in different environments to help understand the principles of cell migration and cancer cell metastasis, or the spread of cancer from the original tumour to other parts of the body.

"We have launched a global effort to recreate the in vivo - live - environment of cancer cells in a computer model. This allows us to perform virtual experiments and study processes that are too costly or technically very difficult to study", stated Muhammad Zaman, who also directs the Laboratory for Molecular and Cellular Dynamics. "By recreating this whole 'system of processes inside a cancer cell' we will be in a position to fully comprehend the problem and hopefully identify targets that will one day translate into anti-cancer drugs."

He explained that only a background programme - or screensaver - needs to be downloaded, at no cost to the user, to contribute to the CELS@Home effort. A computational programme then runs whenever the screensaver is activated, requiring no effort on the part of the user to run the programme or report the computations.

"It's a completely passive approach", Muhammad Zaman stated. "There are no viruses or no spam that can compromise the performance of their machines." Among the approximate 1000 users, there have been no instances of computer problems, he added. Users are from countries such as Argentina, Australia, China, Denmark, France, Israel, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan and Venezuela.

Muhammad Zaman emphasized that the project also will stress dialogue and communication with the worldwide users, which he hopes will number 100.000 people someday. "We'll soon have forums where contributors from all over the world will be able to provide feedback to us about what are some of the most challenging problems in cancer that they would like to study", he stated. "Thus, we are making a global effort to solve a global problem."

Already, the programme has yielded enough information in just two months for two journal articles. "What took months can be done now in days or weeks", Muhammad Zaman stated. "It's amazing." He said that CELS@Home goes beyond traditional Grid computing to incorporate a multi-scale systems biology approach.

"Instead of studying one molecule or one gene, it is studying a host of problems in cancer", Muhammad Zaman stated. "Cancer, as we know, is not a disease of a single gene or a single cell, but in fact it is a problem that involves thousands of genes, signals and molecular components. Understanding cancer requires understanding the system in its proper context, not just a tiny bit of the problem."

He stated that computations may take one day, one week or a month to complete, depending on the user's amount of idle time and computer speed. Any amount of idle time is beneficial, according to Muhammad Zaman. Once a computation is completed, the user will receive another computation, and so on. The user can opt out of the programme at any time.

For more information and to download the screensaver and join the effort, you can visit the CELS@Home website.


Leslie Versweyveld

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