Big Computing to Cure Disease

People can soon donate their computer’s idle time to the advancement of science at no cost. In June, nonprofit organization Quantum Cures will begin utilizing the unused processing power of our idle devices to cure diseases. Most people carry around smart phones and tablets that represent great strides in the accessibility of machines capable of great computation.  But what is all of that computational capability really accomplishing?  The Ars Technica article “Crowdsourcing the Cloud to Find Cures for Rare and ‘Orphaned’ Diseases” addresses one outlet for all of this potential.  Where Big Data is taking advantage of the fact that we have so much storage space to store vast amounts of data, Quantum Cures is exploring a cloud computing initiative.

Quantum Cures will use the same method pioneered by Berkeley University, which utilizes “volunteer” computers to process information to search for extraterrestrial life.  Quantum Cures will use Inverse Design software designed by Duke University and Microsoft to help process vast amounts of information and identify possible treatments for diseases that have fallen by the wayside.

To engineer a drug, they are looking at proteins related to a disease and searching for drugs that can potentially interact with them by using a quantum mechanics / molecular mechanics modeling system.  Lawrence Husick, co-founder of Quantum Cures, explained part of the process to Ars Technica. “Each instance of the software takes the quantum mechanical molecular model of the target protein and a candidate molecule and calculates the potential bonding energy between the two,” Sean Gallagher reported. This process is repeated for millions of molecules for which only a few pass the tests.

Quantum Cure has focused on diseases most pharmaceutical companies consider to be bad investments, including AIDS and malaria. The computing power and time involved with the process is immense, but when nonprofit organizations ask for volunteers to donate their CPU time, this can all be accomplished for much less. “The software installs with user-level permissions and will allow individuals to set how much of their compute time is made available,” Hesik told Ars Technica.