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Intel gets inside life sciences

The company says researchers in Australia, India, China and Singapore--all focused on areas such as medicine and genetics--are turning to computers using its chips.

Intel says its processors are behind efforts to find new breakthroughs in life sciences research and healthcare in a number of countries.

The Santa Clara, Calif., chipmaker, which began an effort to boost its presence in life sciences in November, said on Tuesday that 15 universities and other research institutes in Australia, India, China and Singapore--all focused on areas such as medicine and genetics--are using or will soon put into place new computers based on Intel chips.

Some of the research efforts are relying on clusters, which link multiple desktop or server computers to harness their collective computing power, while others are using more traditional multiple-processor supercomputers from companies such as SGI.

Researchers see new avenues for discovery using these systems to perform large calculations for tasks such as gene mapping. Intel sees additional revenue from higher sales of its Itanium, Xeon and Pentium 4 chip lines as well as the potential for brand new categories of chips.

The chipmaker isn't alone among tech companies angling for a stake in the life sciences.

On Tuesday, Intel rival Sun Microsystems headed to North Carolina to launch a research center dealing in bioinformatics and computational biology. The center is designed to foster collaboration among Duke University, North Carolina State University, the University of North Carolina and other schools in areas such as genomics--and to get them to use Sun hardware along the way.

IBM--some of whose computers use Intel chips--has also launched a number of programs to deliver computers, software and services to customers in life sciences. Those efforts include providing technology and services to help companies hunt for new drugs and selling grid-computing packages to life sciences companies. Computing grids connect computer networks to share computing power, data storage and other resources.

One technology that has caught on recently is the high-performance computing cluster, which provides researchers with an avenue to low-cost computational power. Clusters group large numbers of otherwise standard computers using Linux or other operating systems. They've been giving more traditional supercomputers a run for their money in areas such as genetics, where researchers require computers to tackle a large number of individual tasks.

Hong Kong Baptist University, for one, has tapped such an assemblage to explore traditional Chinese medicine. Its project, designed to identify and classify herbs in an effort to understand the ways herbal remedies work, uses a cluster built out of 64 Xeon-based computers, from Dell Computer, running the Linux operating system.

"Buying an Intel-based cluster running Linux gives us more bang for the buck, plus we have access to the plethora of open-source software developed for this environment," Fred Hickernell, professor at Hong Kong Baptist University's Department of Mathematics, said in a statement.

But research institutions such as Australia's Queensland Parallel Supercomputer Foundation, a consortium of six universities in Queensland, plan to stick to their guns. The foundation will soon install a supercomputer built by SGI and based on Intel Itanium chips to conduct research into bioinformatics, computational physics and chemistry, Intel said.

Intel, in partnership with companies including Dell, is enjoying the newfound popularity of computing clusters, which can use very large numbers of its Pentium 4 and Xeon processors. But the chipmaker isn't just working to promote its products for researchers. It is also dreaming up new ways to place current and future chips into medical equipment and even into everyday devices that could eventually offer built-in health-monitoring capabilities.

"The building blocks that we can do in silicon can become the new building blocks for other industries," said Pat Gelsinger, Intel's chief technology officer.

One spur for Intel into the areas of life sciences and healthcare has been the aging of the of the world's population. Approximately 11 percent of people worldwide are over 60, a figure that will increase to 21 percent by 2050, said Eric Dishman, a health research manager at Intel.

As the average age of the population increases, medicine will shift, Dishman predicts. Intel's research is largely focused in two basic areas: chips that can be inserted into medical devices or replace traditional lab equipment, and chips that serve as sensors to aid in preventive medicine.

When it comes to medical devices, Intel, like others, is working on microfluidics chips, among other things. These chips can be used to test blood samples for diseases, the company has said.

Meanwhile, Intel's research into preventive healthcare has it inventing new sensors that can communicate with computer networks and help detect early warning signs of diseases like Alzheimer's, or even pester patients to take medicines or exercise, Dishman said

Many of these systems rely on Bayesian networks, which gather data on a person's daily habits and warn doctors or family members outside the home that a change in the regular pattern has occurred. Intel is working with several health organizations, medical device companies and regulatory bodies on these products, he said.

Intel's migration into healthcare is aided by the progression of the chip industry as detailed by Moore's Law, said Andy Berlin, who heads biotechnology research at Intel. That theory accurately predicted that the number of transistors on a chip would double every two years, a development that has led to smaller, cheaper, faster and more sophisticated chips.

At some point, cheap microprocessors with integrated networking capabilities could be fit into things like "smart" bandages or mirrors that scan a person's face to detect anomalies such as potentially cancerous lesions.

"We would like to turn healthcare...into a chip industry," Berlin said.