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Smallpox-Fighting Screen Savers

It's the ultimate needle-in-the-haystack search, but a coalition of scientists and technology companies think they may be able to make headway on a cure for smallpox using computer screen savers.

Their project aims to use the idle processing power of up to 2 million personal computers to sift through millions of molecular combinations in hopes of finding one that fights smallpox after infection.

Though smallpox vaccinations exist, there is no known cure to the disease once a person is infected.

Volunteers download a screen saver from that runs whenever their computers have resources to spare to perform computations for the project. When the user connects to the Internet, the computer sends data back to a central hub and gets another assignment.

Researchers said the combined power of 2 million personal computers is 30 times greater than the fastest supercomputer.

The smallpox research follows similar efforts to use "grid computing" to hunt for extraterrestrial life, a cure for cancer and an anthrax treatment.

It is being launched Wednesday with funding by United Devices Inc., IBM Corp., and Pharmacopeia Inc. subsidiary Accelrys of San Diego. Many of the 35 million molecule models are being provided by Oxford University, which led the anthrax and cancer grid computing projects.

The project will be powered by IBM high-end servers, using the company's DB2 database software.

The results of the smallpox project will be turned over to the Department of Defense, which did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

Smallpox shots were stopped in the United States in 1972 and the disease was declared eradicated worldwide in 1980. But American officials believe rogue nations may have smallpox specimens that they could use to mount a bioterrorist attack.

"Bioterrorism agents are funny animals because you can't test them on people," said Edward Hubbard, chief executive of Austin, Texas-based United Devices, which designed the smallpox grid program.

So increasingly, disease researchers are turning to computers to help them identify promising disease-fighting agents, which can then be used in animal and human experiments.

The average drug takes about 15 years and $800 million to develop, according to Tufts University. Much of that time is spent searching for the right compound to experiment on. Grid computing promises to reduce the time it takes to find the right compound.

The computer researchers on the smallpox project hope to, in a few months, winnow 35 million molecules down to about 300,000 candidates, ranked in order of promise. Scientists will then break out the test tubes and petri dishes to experiment on the top 50 or so candidates.

Even then, a potential cure is still years away.

"Wet-lab activities still have to take place," said Tom Hawk, general manager of grid computing for IBM, which has ambitious goals to profit from the emerging technology. "I see this as a honing and narrowing process."