World / Science & Health

Powerful crowdsourced supercomputer revs up virus research by inviting anyone online to join in

AFP-JIJI

Gamers, bitcoin “miners” and companies large and small have teamed up for an unprecedented data-crunching effort that aims to harness idle computing power to accelerate research for a coronavirus treatment.

The project, led by computational biologists, has effectively created the world’s most powerful supercomputer, one that can handle the trillions of calculations needed to understand the structure of the virus.

More than 400,000 users have downloaded the application in the past two weeks from Folding@Home, according to director Greg Bowman, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics at Washington University in St. Louis, where the project is based.

The distributed-computing effort ties together thousands of devices to create a virtual supercomputer.

The project, originally launched at Stanford University 20 years ago, was designed to use crowdsourced computing power for simulations to better understand diseases, especially protein-folding anomalies that can make pathogens deadly.

“The simulations allow us to watch how every atom moves throughout time,” Bowman said.

The massive analysis looks for “pockets” in the virus where a drug can be squeezed in.

“Our primary objective is to hunt for binding sites for therapeutics,” Bowman said.

The powerful computing effort can test potential drug therapies, a technique known as computational drug design.

Bowman said he is optimistic about this effort because the team previously found a “druggable” target in the Ebola virus and because the virus that causes COVID-19 is structurally similar to the SARS virus, which has been the subject of many studies.

“The best opportunity for the near-term future is if we can find an existing drug that can bind to one of these sites,” he said. “If that happens, it could be used right away.”

This is likely to include such drugs as the antimalarials chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, which can be repurposed for COVID-19.

Bowman said the project has been able to boost its computing power to 400 petaflops — 400 quadrillion calculations per second — which is three times more powerful than the world’s top supercomputers.

Other supercomputers are also working in parallel. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory said this month that by using IBM’s most powerful supercomputer it had identified 77 potential compounds that could bind to the main “spike” protein of the coronavirus to disarm the pathogen.

The Folding@Home project is fueled by computing power from people’s desktops, laptops and even game consoles, as well as more powerful business computers and servers.

“There is no end to the compute power than we can use in principle,” Bowman said. Large tech firms, including Microsoft-owned GitHub, are also participating, and the project is in discussions with others.

Anyone with a relatively recent computer can contribute by installing a program that downloads a small amount of data for analysis. People can choose which disease they wish to work on.

“It’s like bitcoin mining, but in the service of humanity,” said Quentin Rhoads-Herrera of the security firm Critical Start, which has provided its powerful password “hash cracker” computer designed to decrypt passwords to the project.

Rhoads-Herrera said his team of security researchers, sometimes described as “white hat hackers,” were encouraging more people to get involved.

Computer chipmaker Nvidia, which makes powerful graphics processors for gaming devices, called on gamers to join the effort as well.

“The response has been record-breaking, with tens of thousands of new users,” joining, said Nvidia spokesman Hector Marinez.

One of the largest contributions comes from a Reddit group of PC enthusiasts and gamers that has some 24,000 members participating.

“It is a fantastic weapon against the feeling of helplessness,” said Pedro Valadas, a lawyer in Portugal who heads the Reddit community and is a part of the project’s advisory board.

“The fact that anyone, at home, with a computer, can play a role and help fight against (disease) for the common good is a powerful statement,” Valadas said.

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