Computer sharing tackles anthrax

A drug-discovery effort using more than a million personal computers worldwide has identified thousands of compounds that could form the basis of a cure for anthrax, researchers at the University of Oxford in England announced March 8.

The anthrax project rested upon a strategy known as distributed computing, in which individuals download a special screensaver to their Internet-connected personal computers that enables the machines to work on assigned calculations during their free time (SN: 3/4/00, p. 152: Scientists have turned to distributed computing for data-heavy tasks, such as climate modeling and analyzing radio signals from space for signs of intelligent life. More recently, biologists have embraced the technique for screening troves of compounds as possible drugs for cancer, diabetes, and other diseases.

In the latest project, which began on Jan. 22, about 1.4 million personal computers in 200 countries helped screen some 3.5 billion molecules for ones that might inhibit the formation of the toxin produced by anthrax bacteria. The search identified 300,000 possible inhibitors and flagged around 12,000 as particularly promising.

“Research that was believed to be impossible in my lifetime is now not only possible, but has been accomplished in a few weeks,” says Graham Richards, who directed the project. He and his colleagues presented the list of potential antianthrax agents to the governments of the United Kingdom and the United States for follow-up tests.

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