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Peer-to-peer to aid in medical research

Intel, the American Cancer Society and Oxford University, among others, band together to create a peer-to-peer network for cancer and disease research.

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Intel tries P2P philanthropy
Pat Gelsinger, CTO, Intel
Intel, the American Cancer Society and Oxford University, among others, have banded together to create a peer-to-peer network dedicated to cancer and disease research.

The program is largely targeted at two goals: ameliorating or curing life-threatening diseases and demonstrating how peer-to-peer computing networks can solve supercomputer-size problems.

In peer-to-peer networks, also known as distributed computing, computational tasks are spread among thousands or millions of computers, most often PCs that handle peer-to-peer chores during what would otherwise be idle time. The method is an increasingly popular way for researchers to run complex calculations and programs without expensive supercomputers. These networks, ideally, cut both the cost and time involved in research projects.

"This will give us unlimited computer power for almost no cost," said Intel CEO Craig Barrett, who added that researchers will "get the computational capability of millions of computers working in concert."

The network created in this program, potentially, will be able to churn 50 teraflops, or 50 trillion operations per second. Only a few years ago, the fastest supercomputers peaked at 1 teraflop, Barrett noted.

"PC philanthropy through peer-to-peer computing has the very real potential to reduce substantially the time to find better, more effective treatments and, yes, even cures for cancer," said Dr. John Seffrin, CEO of the American Cancer Society.

United Devices created the software for the network in conjunction with other participants. The company's research grew out of the Seti@home project, a peer-to-peer project dedicated to seeking intelligent life in space.

The Intel Philanthropic Peer-to-Peer Program, the official name of the program, will first be used for leukemia research and developing leukemia medicines.

Scientists at Oxford, the National Foundation for Cancer Research and the American Cancer Society will create a database of 18 billion small molecules and then study how these molecules interact through computerized simulations. The simulations will gauge the cancer-fighting potential of the different molecules.

The database now contains profiles on 250 million small molecules, a drop in the bucket, said Graham Richards, chairman of chemistry at Oxford.

"You can turn your screensaver to a life-saver, which is a lot better than a flying toaster," he said. The project could absorb as many as 24 million computing hours, researchers said.

Oxford will own the intellectual property developed under the program, but the university will license it relatively freely, he added.

The project was conceived in September and recently launched in beta, said Ed Hubbard, CEO of United Devices. To participate in the project, computer users need to download and install the software, which also becomes the screensaver. The software essentially channels idle computer time to the network.