Stephen Singer, Hartford Courant
Researchers at three Connecticut health organizations announced Tuesday a project enlisting a worldwide web of volunteers who lend their computers to help find cures for childhood cancer.
Connecticut Children's Medical Center, The Jackson Laboratory and University of Connecticut School of Medicine are working with an IBM "global crowdsourcing" project to find the right drug compound that could affect key molecules and proteins to control cancer cells in several common childhood cancers.
Researchers in the project known as Smash Childhood Cancer are joining the World Community Grid, an IBM-funded and managed program using volunteers' computers and androids that provide tremendous computing power.
"It's a pretty neat idea," Ching Lau, a pediatric oncologist and cancer researcher at Connecticut Children's Medical Center, said at a presentation at the hospital.
Pharmaceutical companies are unwilling to spend what's necessary for a drug that has a "limited patient population," he said.
"Therefore, the responsibility rests on us, the physicians who are actually treating these patients, to try to improve the treatment for them," he said.
Researchers who gathered a few years ago at an international meeting decided to rely on the World Community Grid to "speed things up," Lau said.
The World Community Grid, which he called a "dream come true," harnesses volunteer-donated computer use equal to a free virtual supercomputer. It allows scientists to more quickly conduct millions of virtual experiments to help find promising drug candidates for study.
Volunteers' devices perform virtual experiments, with the results transmitted to researchers for analysis. Computers are used for "surplus computing" that calculates data during "down time" or if the owner is using the computer for simple tasks.
The World Community Grid has connected researchers to supercomputing power valued at about $500 million. It's partially hosted in IBM's cloud and has been generated by 720,000 individuals, 3 million desktops and 440 institutions from 80 countries.
The computing allows research to be done in years rather than decades, said Juan Hindo, corporate citizenship program manager at IBM.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said computers at Connecticut universities will be put to use. He hinted at the state's troubled finances, saying state officials, "to the extent we can," will help researchers in their work.
Lau said that by collecting and analyzing data from the network of computers, researchers will help pharmaceutical companies avoid a very large step on the road to drug development. Researchers will present pharmaceutical companies with their data and ask drugmakers if they can commercialize the medication.
Volunteer computing began in the late 1990s when at-home volunteers began analyzing signals from space and picked up by radio telescopes, IBM said. The computations and use of data grew as more personal computers joined the pool, or "grid."
Since 2004, IBM's World Community Grid has been used for research projects including HIV/AIDS and the Zika and Ebola viruses, genetic mapping, sustainable energy and other areas.