Canadian AIDS organizations join grid project

Three Canadian AIDS organizations joined a global supercomputer project on Thursday, World AIDS Day, as part of the research effort to find a cure.

The Toronto AIDS Committee, the Pacific AIDS Network and the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network have joined a grid-based computer project that already boasts 120,000 members.

IBM set up the World Community Grid last November, initially to help the Seattle-based Institute of Biology conduct research in protein-folding – a project that helped identify 120,000 proteins in the human body as a means to better understand diseases from Alzheimer’s to malaria.

“This is something, if they had done it on their own, would have taken them 100 years to do,” said IBM spokesperson Clint Roswell. “It took them one year with us.”

PC users can download a piece of software from the World Community Grid’s Web site that harnesses idle PC cycles. The cycles are aggregated and put to work as computational power. The WCG’s latest effort, first announced last week, is devoted to AIDS research.

In conjunction with the Scripps Research Institute, the WCG will deploy the computing power to develop new strategies in the treatment of HIV-infected patients. The pool of potential drug molecules and possible HIV proteins that may evolve is vast. The WCG grid will address the prediction of relevant interactions between the pools to design AIDS therapies.

“These kinds of therapies are basically responsible for keeping people with HIV from getting AIDS and prolonging life,” said Roswell. “This (project) is going to be coming up with more drug therapies to help that.”

Erik Ages, administrator of the Victoria-based Pacific AIDS Network, oversees 50 community-based AIDS organizations in B.C. He first notified his members of the WCG project on Wednesday.

“There was a fair amount of enthusiasm,” he said. “We anticipate some fairly good uptake, including my own offices, which run three or four computers that are often idle. Basically, it just uses idle CPU time and crunches away on various projects.”

Ages said he’s participated in grid computing projects like this before, including one to map the human genome. But there may be some resistance from some people since participation requires that they download software to their hard drive.

“It’s a fairly simple mechanism, but it does come on the heels of a fair amount of public paranoia with respect to hacking and phishing and spyware,” he said. “I think IBM has done their homework to protect the interface we’ll use.”

The software is completely safe, said Roswell, since it’s a one-way process that sends cycles out, but doesn’t receive any information or scan the user’s hard drive at all.

“We even had six ethical hackers try to break into the system and they couldn’t,” he said.

The grid is capable of holding 10 million computers. “We hope by the end of the year to get up to 250,000. I think we figured out that there’s about 650 million PCs in the world today, so that’s a pretty big opportunity,” said Roswell. The more computers that are added to the grid, the faster the research can be conducted. Also, more computers would mean more projects in additional to protein and AIDS research.

“I don’t think it’s going to make a different by tomorrow, but any of the initiatives that focus on virology is going to contribute to HIV care treatment and cure,” said Ages.

“It’s grassroots, but nevertheless, just as scientifically viable. All of this stuff is contributing to our understanding of viruses.”

WCG is currently on par with the top 10 supercomputers in the world, said Roswell. It handles about 26,000 cycles per day. IBM’s supercomputer Blue Gene does about 64,000.

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