Grid computing boosts cancer research

Posted by Wolfgang Gruener

Austin (TX) – It all began with Seti@Home more than nine years ago, when distributed
computing started to gain traction and took advantage of thousands of
client computers to analyze data and contribute to a results database.
Probably the most know distributed computing effort today is
Folding@Home and now we have Cels@Home, which is asking Internet users
to dedicate computer time to cancer research.

Cels@Home, short for Cellular Environment in Living Systems @Home, is yet another fascinating science project, giving users and their idle computers and opportunity to make a donation that one day could help improve our life. While Folding@Home focuses on demystifying Alzheimer’s disease, Cels@Home is aimed at cancer research. According to Muhammad Zaman, assistant professor in biomedical engineering and leader of the Cels@Home project, said that client computers will be used for cell adhesion research: “One of the many applications of this is in cancer research, as the point at which cancerous cells quit staying in place, and instead break free to move throughout the body, is a critical event that makes the disease much harder to treat,” a press release states.

Similar to other distributed computing efforts, the Cels@Home is also based on a background program that retrieves, processes and sends data as soon as the Cels@Home screensaver is activated.  

"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."

About 1000 people have signed up for Cels@Home so far. Within two months, the program has yielded enough information for two journal articles. "What took months can be done now in days or weeks," Zaman said. "It's amazing."

"Instead of studying one molecule or one gene, Cels@Home is studying a host of problems in cancer," he explained. "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."

According to the researcher, computations may take one day, one week or a month to complete, depending on the user's amount of idle time and computer speed.