By Richard Silberman, Writer/Researcher, IBM Communications
When Igor Jurisica started doing cancer research 11 years ago, he worked with about a dozen colleagues using a handful of scientific workstations in a small lab in Toronto, Canada.
How times have changed.
Today, Jurisica, a senior scientist at Princess Margaret Hospital, Ontario Cancer Institute, conducts his research with the help of nearly 300,000 people spread across 100 countries running his calculations on over 900,000 devices.
This global “team” comprises volunteers who donate their idle computing time to the World Community Grid, creating a virtual supercomputer devoted strictly to humanitarian research. Jurisica’s project, Help Conquer Cancer, is one of nine initiatives that currently share the grid’s massive computing power — free of charge — to conduct critical scientific inquiry.
Jurisica’s research involves computationally intensive calculations to understand the protein crystallization process in general, with a special focus on the structure and function of cancer-related proteins. With conventional computing resources, this project would take at least 186 years to complete.
By using the grid, Jurisica will be able to finish it in just under four years.
“World Community Grid has not simply sped up this research, it has enabled it,” Jurisica said. “The grid has completely transformed the scope of our work and enabled us to finally address our problem in the correct way, in a realistic time frame.”
Visionary cancer research, viable at last
Jurisica is using World Community Grid to analyze and classify 115 million images of more than 12,500 human proteins. Each image, created through a process known as x-ray crystallography, displays unique features that must be carefully annotated.
“No human would be able to go through this number of images in a consistent way and accurately classify them,” Jurisica said. ”The grid is the only environment where we can even attempt to do this kind of comprehensive and systematic analysis.”
The results of this project will expand researchers’ understanding of the crystallization process, protein biochemistry and cancer biology and potentially help determine an individual’s predisposition to certain cancers. It may also help improve therapy planning, treatment prognosis and drug development.
Supercomputing power without supercomputer costs
For institutions using World Community Grid, it’s a dream come true: they get all the computational power of a supercomputer without the prohibitive costs and enormous responsibilities.
“Even if somebody gave me Blue Gene or some other machine that could sustain this kind of computation, it’s not feasible because I wouldn’t have the space, power, cooling capacity or the staff necessary to maintain it,” Jurisica said. World Community Grid’s distributed computing model eliminates the headaches of operating a centralized system and lets Jurisica do what he cares about most: focus on his research.
“With the grid, some machines may go offline, new ones will come online, and our computations might move from machine to machine,” Jurisica said. “But I don’t have to concern myself at all with that level of detail.”
Cycling for a cure
When Jurisica is not conducting research, supervising graduate students, traveling to conferences, lecturing or consulting, he likes to go cycling. Since 2008, he has ridden in the annual Ride to Conquer Cancer — a 2-day, 200-mile bike ride from Toronto to Niagara Falls. His IBM-OCI-Roche Integrative Discovery cycling team has raised over C$250,000 for cancer research to date.
“I signed up for my first ride not because I was regularly bicycling, but because of the cause,” Jurisica said. “But since then I have come to love cycling and I’ve even changed my lifestyle to some degree.”
With his current grid-based research scheduled to wrap up later this year, Jurisica is looking ahead to the next phase of his project, which he hopes to continue running on the grid.
“As a computer scientist, I have great interest in developing new approaches and resources to do complex data analysis and visualization,” Jurisica said. “But it’s really gratifying when this research eventually leads to a clinical test that can hopefully start changing the lives of actual patients. That’s what this is all about.”
World Community Grid pools the surplus computer processing power of more than 1.8 million PCs registered by over 570,000 people in 88 countries to tackle projects that benefit all of humanity, like fighting childhood cancer, developing clean energy solutions or designing better treatments to fight AIDS. Volunteers simply download free, secure software that runs quietly in the background when their computer isn’t in use and crunches numbers for humanitarian research initiatives. In terms of pure processing power, the grid is comparable to one of the world’s top fifteen supercomputers.
To read more World Community Grid Person for a Smarter Planet posts, click here.