Tackling Malaria one keystroke at a time

Michael O’ Sullivan investigates the power behind a UCD computing project that may solve some of the world’s health problems

Malaria is one of the single biggest killers on the planet. It’s estimated that every 45 seconds, a child dies of the disease. To say the need for an effective vaccine is urgent is an understatement and pharmaceutical companies, along with academic research groups are spending untold millions every year to try and find an effective cure.

The problem is this: malaria (Latin name Plasmodium falciparum) is not a bacterial or viral infection. Malaria is a parasite, a living thing with its own complex DNA structure and life cycle. Not only that, but when drugs are found to be effective at combating some of malaria’s symptoms, the parasite develops resistance to these drugs at an alarmingly quick rate. This is due to the fact that it reproduces incredibly fast once it gets into the bloodstream, going through multiple generations of the parasite while infecting just one host.

It is now urgent that new and more effective drugs are identified and put into use as soon as possible. Drugs companies such as GSK and Novartis have identified over 19,000 compounds that show promise in fighting against the parasite. The problem with this is that the computational power needed to process how these drugs affect the parasite is enormous. Without the knowledge of how and why these drugs are effective against the parasite, there is no way of being able to further research more effective drugs. Unfortunately, the cost of building supercomputers capable of collating and deciphering this information is so huge that even the pharmaceutical giants of the world can’t cough up the cash.

Luckily, one solution to this problem is relatively simple: distributed computing. Much like the human brain, a standard computer only uses a fraction of its processing power when performing the majority of its everyday tasks, leaving a large proportion of its capability unused at all times. The idea behind distributed computing is that host PCs use a portion of their unused processing capability to run calculations in the background while the computer is switched on. This may seem a bit underwhelming, but a supercomputer is simply a mass of smaller computers pooling their computational power together. If a few thousand people were to donate only a small portion of the unused CPU power of their laptop or PC to a group who could use this power to run calculations, a supercomputer would be born. This comes with the added bonus that this supercomputer would, in essence, be built for free.

UCD has a distributed computing project already in action. The FightMalaria@Home project aims to use donated computing space to run the calculations necessary to learn more about the effectiveness of the drugs already outlined by the world’s pharmaceutical companies. By using a software system called BOINC, the project allows people to sign up from anywhere in the world and donate their CPU capacity to the project. Dr. Anthony Chubb, who is heavily involved in the project, is delighted with the progress so far. “We’re getting about 300,000 docking results per day, which is quite impressive.”

It’s easy to see how projects like this one are so successful, with such high numbers of people donating computer space already. The Fightmalaria@Home project is averaging 500 connected computers from at any one time from all corners of the globe.

“[Distributed computing] is very exciting because people can get involved from anywhere. Even my parents are getting involved and they’re in South Africa.” says Chubb. “The system is working so well that we hope to set up FightTB@Home too.”

The benefits of distributed computing are very clear, but could it be taken further? While there are certainly an enormous number of PCs in the world, are there not other pieces of hardware that could be added to the distributed computing network in the future?

Some groups have already looked into using smart phones as possible sources of extra CPU power for distributed computing systems. It’s already been found that even a few phones working in tandem can produce plenty of processing power and they are constantly improving. The current problem with smart phones as another computing power source is their short battery life, but if technology continues to improve at the rate it has done for the past number of years, it shouldn’t be long before phones with incredible battery life hit the market. Add to that the fact that smart phones now outsell PCs and you have a veritable mine of computing potential waiting to be tapped.

In our increasingly technology driven world, it makes sense to use all of the computing power available to us to solve our planets many problems. If projects such as FightMalaria@Home continue to get results at the rate they are already doing, we could be malaria free in a few short years, and that is a much better use of computer power than hours spent watching cats on YouTube.

If you’re interested in donating some of your PCs power to FightMalaria@Home, you can find the details at http://www.fight-malaria.org/.