An average person can contribute idle computer time in a global effort to fight cancer thanks to a concept called "grid computing." This concept has been developed by a biomedical engineering professor at The University of Texas at Austin.
Already Cellular Environment in Living Systems @Home or CELS@Home, developed by Muhammad Zaman, has over 1, 000 computer users round the world who are donating towards the project, and the figures continue to grow.
The project relies on grid computing, which allows Internet users worldwide to contribute their idle computer time, creating a "virtual" supercomputer to solve a difficult problem. Here, the grid computing program is calculating cellular interactions in different environments to know the principles of cell migration and cancer cell metastasis, or the spread of cancer from the original tumor to other parts of the body.
"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. 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," said Zaman.
According to him, only a background program (or screensaver) needs to be downloaded-at no cost to the user-to contribute to the CELS@Home effort. Then, a computational program runs every time the screensaver is activated, without any effort on the part of the user to run the program or report the computations.
"It's a completely passive approach. There are no viruses or no spam that can compromise the performance of their machines," said Zaman.
In fact, there haven't been any instances of computer problems till date, said Zaman highlighting that the project also will stress dialogue and communication with the worldwide users, which he hopes will number 100,000 people someday.
"We'll soon have forums where contributors from all over the world will be able to provide feedback to us about what are some of the most challenging problems in cancer that they would like to study. Thus, we are making a global effort to solve a global problem," he said.
He said that CELS@Home goes beyond traditional grid computing to incorporate a multi-scale systems biology approach.
"Instead of studying one molecule or one gene, it is studying a host of problems in cancer. 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," said Zaman.
He said that computations may take one day, one week or a month to complete, depending on the user's amount of idle time and computer speed. Any amount of idle time is beneficial. Once a computation is completed, the user will receive another computation, and so on. The user can opt out of the program at any time.