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Grid Computing Harnessed for Childhood Cancer Research

Network illustration

(Gerd Altmann, Pixabay)

31 January 2017. An international consortium is seeking crowdsourced computing power to screen drug candidates for treating a number of cancers affecting children. The Smash Childhood Cancer project is a joint initiative of researchers at labs in Japan, Hong Kong, and the U.S. with technology partner IBM.

The project aims to find treatments for several types of cancer affecting children, including cancers of the brain, liver, and bone, as well as germ cell tumors and Wilms’ tumor affecting the kidneys. Individually these cancers are considered rare diseases, but taken together, some 300,000 cases of cancer are diagnosed worldwide in children and teens under the age of 19 each year, leading to 80,000 deaths.

Cancer researchers at Saga Medical Center Koseikan, Chiba University, and Kyoto University in Japan, University of Hong Kong in China, and University of Connecticut School of Medicine with affiliated hospitals and institutes in the U.S. plan to screen millions of chemical compounds having the potential to treat these diseases against a set of target proteins. The aim is to find compound candidates with the greatest affinity to bind to these proteins associated with childhood cancers.

The task, say the researchers, requires massive computing power, the likes of which are not found in any single lab. Instead, IBM is offering the use of its World Community Grid, a network of individual computers connected via the cloud that offers spare capacity or idle time to conduct high-resource computational tasks. IBM says World Community Grid has some 727,000 participants.

The World Community Grid played a similar role in 2014, when researchers at Chiba University took advantage of grid computing power offered by volunteers and networked through IBM to find drug candidates to treat childhood neuroblastoma, a cancer developing in nerve cells in fetuses. Neuroblastoma forms tumors in the adrenal glands, near the kidneys, and accounts for 7 to 10 percent of all childhood cancers. That initiative resulted in discovery of 7 new drug candidates.

The neuroblastoma project was led by Akira Nakagawara, president of Chiba University’s cancer center. Nakagawara, a pediatric oncologist, is now CEO of Saga Medical Center Koseikan, and chair of the Smash Childhood Cancer project, which will also seek additional candidates for neuroblastoma.

Participants in the project offer idle time on their computers or Android devices to run simulated drug screenings. The screenings use open-source software called AutoDock Vina that evaluates the interaction of two different molecules to find those that bind most readily with the cancer target proteins. The software assigns a score from these simulations, and those candidates with the highest scores will then be more closely examined by cancer research labs.

IBM says volunteers need offer only their systems to the effort; no personal time, money, or technical expertise is required. Participants download an app and install it on their computer or Android device, which makes use of the volunteered system’s resources when idle, and returns results to a central database.

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Disclosure: The author owns shares in IBM.

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