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

June 23, 2008

A 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 (cels-at-home-dev.dyndns.org/cels/>). The program already has more than 1,000 computer users worldwide contributing to the project. And the numbers keep growing.

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 program 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 tumor 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," says 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 says only a background program (or screensaver) needs to be downloaded—at no cost to the user—to contribute to the CELS@Home effort. A computational program then runs whenever the screensaver is activated, requiring no effort on the part of the user to run the program or report the computations.

"It's a completely passive approach," Zaman says. "There are no viruses or no spam that can compromise the performance of their machines."

Among the approximate 1,000 users, there have been no instances of computer problems, he says. Users are from countries such as: Argentina, Australia, China, Denmark, France, Israel, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan and Venezuela.

Zaman emphasizes 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 says. "Thus, we are making a global effort to solve a global problem."

Already, the program has yielded enough information in just two months for two journal articles.

"What took months can be done now in days or weeks," Zaman says. "It's amazing."

He says 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," Zaman says. "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 says 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, Zaman says. Once a computation is completed, the user will receive another computation, and so on. The user can opt out of the program at any time.

Source: University of Texas at Austin

Explore further: Scientists demonstrate basics of nucleic acid computing inside cells

Related Stories

GenomeSpace 'recipes' help biologists interpret genomic data

January 20, 2016

Many biomedical researchers are striving to make sense of the flood of data that has followed recent advances in genomic sequencing technologies. In particular, researchers are often limited by the challenge of getting multiple ...

Scientists discover blueprint of body's heat sensor

January 18, 2016

Touch a hot stove, and your fingers will recoil in pain because your skin carries tiny temperature sensors that detect heat and send a message to your brain saying, "Ouch! That's hot! Let go!"

Titan targets tumors

January 26, 2016

Since lasers were first produced in the early 1960s, researchers have worked to apply laser technology from welding metal to surgeries, with laser technology advancing quickly through the last 50 years.

Recommended for you

Search engines will know what you want ... sooner

February 8, 2016

If you enter "Oklahoma" in a search engine, you might get a travelogue, news about the oil industry, Oklahoma State football scores or an article on Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. What appears at the top of the list might ...

Researchers find vulnerability in two-factor authentication

February 3, 2016

Two-factor authentication is a computer security measure used by major online service providers to protect the identify of users in the event of a password loss. The process is familiar: When a password is forgotten, the ...

Battery technology could charge up water desalination

February 4, 2016

The technology that charges batteries for electronic devices could provide fresh water from salty seas, says a new study by University of Illinois engineers. Electricity running through a salt water-filled battery draws the ...

EU and US reach new data-sharing agreement

February 2, 2016

The European Union and the United States struck a deal Tuesday over data-sharing that will allow the likes of Facebook and Apple to continue sending people's information across the Atlantic—but a legal challenge to the ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

CreepyD
not rated yet Jun 24, 2008
Quote - "at no cost to the user".
Haha, I tried one of these things once.. it used 100% CPU while running.. These things cost a small fortune in electricity if you leave them running all day every day.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.