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Special Report: Teaming Up To Cure Anthrax

Written by Heidi Schwartz. Posted in Magazine, Special Reports

Published on February 06, 2002 with No Comments

By Heidi Schwartz
Published in the February 2002 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Some of the world’s most prestigious names in business and research are teaming up with fms and other computer users to fight the war against anthrax. The University of Oxford, United Devices, Intel, and Microsoft have launched a new project on the Internet to find molecules which could form the basis for the minimization of the effects of anthrax.

“The combined effort of this coalition reinforces the importance of edge distributed computing as a means of helping solve real-world science problems more quickly and efficiently,” says Ed Hubbard, CEO of Austin, TX-based United Devices.

Why Now?

The Anthrax Research Project has been set up as a direct result of the recent outbreaks of the disease following the attacks on September 11. It builds on the hugely successful cancer screen saver program which used idle computer time on over a million personal computers across the world. This idle time–more powerful to than the world’s 10 largest supercomputers combined–was previously used to screen a database of 3.5 billion drug-like molecules as potential anti-cancer drug candidates. The same infrastructure, application, and processes will be used to analyze the Anthrax toxin protein.

“This is an example of a problem that we can use technology to solve. In biotechnology research today, a lot of that is actually driven by advances in computer technology. Technology is helping to accelerate the process,” says Rick Rashid, senior vice president of Redmond, WA-based Microsoft Research.

However, “at least one prominent anthrax researcher says he is skeptical that access to free computing power would further the development of an anthrax vaccine. ‘It doesn’t make the odds any better,’ says Martin Hugh-Jones, professor of epidemiology at Louisiana State University.” (“PCs Linked To Seek Cure For Anthrax,” Mary Anne Ostrom, The Mercury News, January 21, 2002.)

Professor Graham Richards, Chairman of Chemistry at Oxford University and scientific director of the project disagrees. “Massively distributed computing provides efficient and speedy ways to identify new drug candidates. Particularly with anthrax and other related bioterrorist threats, speed to discovery is of the essence. Without this technology and the support of our collaborators, there would be no other way to tackle such a tremendous task.”

How Computers Cure

The Oxford University group has used its own software to identify the binding site on the protein, which provides the scope for rational drug design. With that site identified, the screening of the database of molecules can be tested as potential inhibitors.

Amongst the results will be a list of “hits” and their relative scores. When a molecular conformation docks successfully and triggers an interaction with the protein, it registers as a hit and is scored or ranked for strength of interaction.

While antibiotics can wipe out the bacteria in many cases, unfortunately anthrax is frequently diagnosed only after a victim’s bacterial count has escalated. At this point, antibiotics can do nothing to clear the toxin. Furthermore, antibiotics, especially if taken inappropriately, can actually increase the danger from anthrax by allowing resistant strains to develop. Turning a drug candidate into a useable therapy is a major undertaking which will cost millions of dollars and take several years.

Peer-To-Peer Computing

Fortunately, scientists have many unconventional resources in this current battle against anthrax. In fact, fms and employees can play a part by volunteering their unused computing time.

The Intel® Philanthropic Peer-to-Peer Program links millions of PCs into one of the most powerful computing resources in the world. This “virtual supercomputer” uses peer-to-peer technology (the sharing of resources such as hard drives and processing cycles among computers and other intelligent devices) to make unprecedented amounts of processing power available to medical researchers, thus accelerating the development of treatments and drugs with the potential to cure diseases.

Internet-based peer-to-peer applications position the desktop at the center of computing. This model also helps businesses capitalize on the power of desktop computers that are already in place in the enterprise environment.

This compelling technology is on the rise today largely because of the advantages that peer networks offer in terms of collaborating on specific tasks. One industry analyst “…feels that the access to free, powerful computing could be a boon to the initiatives’ not-for-profit partners, including the National Foundation for Cancer Research and university research scientists.” (“PCs Linked To Seek Cure For Anthrax,” Mary Anne Ostrom, The Mercury News, January 21, 2002.)


How It Works

The screen saver works by running 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. According to a report on SCI-Tech, “The company that designed the program…promises that no personal information on participants PCs can be compromised while they take part.” (“PCs Tapped To Help Fight Anthrax,”, January 22, 2002.)

There’s no cost to download and run the screen saver program, and no noticeable impact on computer performance, because the medical research programs are designed to run only when computing resources are unused. As soon as an application that needs computing power is launched, the research program will power back down.

The program is approximately 2MB in size–only slightly larger than a floppy disk. Other system requirements are:

  • Intel Pentium® processor or equivalent;
  • At least 48 MB RAM;
  • 500 MB hard disk drive with at least 20 MB available for use;
  • 256-color monitor with at least 800×600 resolution; and
  • An Internet connection.

When fms run a program, it will automatically guide them through an installation process. As the program runs, it uses the computer to begin processing a small packet of data.

Once processing is complete (about a day later), the program sends the results back to a server and requests a new packet of data. If the user isn’t online when the processing is done, the computer will wait to send and receive data packets until the next time the user is connected to the Internet.

“I’m excited to see international research cooperation and technological innovation come together to accelerate a response to the anthrax danger,” says Pat Gelsinger, chief technology officer at Santa Clara, based Intel. “Using peer-to-peer technology and the power of millions of PCs, we’re now in a new era of computing directed at improving the quality of life that will open the door for use in other computer intensive areas.”

Although anthrax has yet to cause significant loss of life, it has affected a great number of people, emotionally as well as psychologically. Dr. Sujuan Ba, science director for the National Foundation For Cancer Research says, “With the computational power of over one-million computers, we hope to find the ‘silver bullet’ that will stop anthrax from continuing as a terrorist’s weapon.” This will prove to be a great starting point to address further possible biological threats in a similar fashion.

The Anthrax Research Project was launched on January 22, 2002 and was expected to run anywhere from 3 weeks to 1.5 months. To participate, go to and download the screen saver. For more specific information on the Anthrax Research Project, visit

To discuss some of your experiences in real time, come to FacilityBlog; to comment on this article, send an e-mail to

About Heidi Schwartz

Heidi Schwartz

Schwartz joined Group C Media in April 1989 as managing editor of Today's Facility Manager (TFM) magazine (formerly Business Interiors) where she was subsequently promoted to editor/co-publisher of the monthly trade magazine for facility management professionals. In September 2012, she took over the newly created position of internet director for TFM's parent company, Group C Media, where she is charged with developing content and creating online strategies for TFM and its sister publication, Business Facilities. Schwartz can be reached at

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