How IBM's World Community Grid Is Helping Cure AIDs, Cancer, and World Hunger

IBM's virtual supercomputer is tapping the unused processors of half a million people to speed up critical scientific research.

For the past four years, Lauren Moran has devoted herself to groundbreaking cancer research, chronicling the fickle interaction between molecules and proteins. Despite having a full-time job — "stat geek" on the New York Yankees' media relations staff — Moran screens drug candidates daily. And continuously. She conducts experiments while talking on the phone to her parents, attending games at Yankee Stadium, and watching episodes of The Office in her Bronx apartment. Even in the dead of night.

When she's not trying to cure cancer, she's busy cracking other monumental problems: AIDS. World hunger. Clean energy. It's a breathtaking portfolio for a 24-year-old communications major who didn't take a single chemistry or biology class in college.

Moran is a new breed of innovator: a citizen researcher on IBM's World Community Grid (WCG), an unprecedented effort to deploy ordinary people's idle computers to create a free, open-source lab for researchers around the globe. Massive computational research is broken down into discrete problems and distributed across a vast network. Since the tech giant launched the nearly $2-million-a-year project in November 2004, more than half a million people in 218 countries have volunteered some 1.5 million laptops and desktops. In raw computing power, the grid is comparable to a top-10 supercomputer. The average PC would take more than 328,000 years to complete the grid's calculations so far.

The grid, says researcher Alán Aspuru-Guzik, an assistant professor of chemistry at Harvard, "gives you the opportunity to do something nobody else has done. Something disruptive."

Moran's laptop displays a screen saver of her latest WCG assignment, but the science, she admits, is "way over my head. I just know when I'm not using my computer, it's crunching numbers that could lead to a cure."

Most of us use our computers about as efficiently as we use our brains: We scratch the surface, never tapping the full potential. WCG exploits this unused computing power by borrowing — with the owner's permission — a machine's central processing unit to do some serious math. It works unobtrusively, when you aren't working. You download software that takes advantage of any break, from a phone call to a pause while you're thinking of what to type next. The instant your fingers touch the keys, the calculations cease.

At IBM, a full-time staff of seven — dispersed across the country, from Beaverton, Oregon, to Austin — makes sure that the projects' individual applications are running smoothly, that the grid is assigning work and returning results to the appropriate lab, that problems aren't cropping up in the online member forums, and that software for upcoming projects is being vetted.

Using this powerful new tool, AIDS researchers at Scripps Research Institute are generating new drug leads to combat the growing strains of drug-resistant HIV. French scientists are learning more about the proteins behind muscular dystrophy. (Partly because of that project, the lead researcher, Alessandra Carbone, was recently named the "Woman Scientist of the Year" by the French government.) Scientists at the University of Washington are compiling a comprehensive map of rice proteins, which could help developing countries grow more nutritious, higher-yield crops. A team led by the Cancer Institute of New Jersey used the grid to develop algorithms that identify subtle signatures in digitized cancer tissues that could lead to early, accurate, and rapid detection; the results convinced the National Institutes of Health to award the team $2.5 million to expand the database.

WCG, which hosted one project its first year, now runs a half dozen or more simultaneously. The latest: In hopes of discovering new organic electronic materials that could lead to cheaper solar cells, Aspuru-Guzik is screening about 2 million chemical compounds for photovoltaic properties. That's roughly 20,000 times more compounds than he could analyze on a single computer. And the project will take only a couple of years, instead of two decades.

"We're opening up the field of bioinformatics," says Robin Willner, IBM's vice president of global community initiatives, including WCG. "There's nothing else out there like this."

"Looking for aliens is great, but let's cure cancer"
Many companies run in-house grids on their employees' machines, but a network of WCG's size and scope wasn't feasible until recently. "Back in the '70s, we were thinking, What if we could do this?" says Viktors Berstis, a 33-year IBM veteran and WCG's chief scientist. Divvying up data processing to the public around the planet wasn't practical until enough computers were connected to the Web, connections were high speed, and machines' processors were powerful enough to hammer through dense algorithms rapidly.

The first, and still the biggest, public grid is SETI@home, launched in 1999, with more than 3 million members. Its computers analyze radio telescope signals as part of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. From the beginning, IBM had a different vision. "As someone said early on, looking for aliens is great, but let's cure cancer," says Willner. In 2004, after the company sponsored a modest grid that identified a few dozen possible smallpox treatments in just six months, the systems and technology group proposed creating an enormous grid — using the same open-source grid-management platform as SETI, called BOINC, developed at the University of California, Berkeley — to host multiple humanitarian projects. It would be the first network of its kind and a compelling recruitment tool for employees and clients alike. CEO Sam Palmisano signed off within two weeks.

Certain kinds of research are well suited for grid computing, such as those involving what scientists call "embarrassingly parallel" problems — those that can be solved independently on machines that don't need to communicate. They work in parallel and report results to a central clearinghouse. This is particularly useful in early drug development focused on finding molecules that inhibit a targeted protein — the building blocks for drugs.

Stanley Watowich, a biochemist at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, uses WCG to model in algorithms what happens between a small molecule and a protein related to dengue fever, West Nile virus, and hepatitis C. His virtual experiments analyze millions of possibilities in months, as opposed to more time-consuming and expensive wet-lab experiments that might examine only hundreds. The first stage winnowed the molecules to several thousand that plug into binding sites on a dozen proteins, like puzzle pieces, says Watowich. The second stage narrows the field again, evaluating the binding energy of those candidates and the proteins, a highly complex computation that's practical only on a large grid. The idea is to reserve lab time for the molecules with the greatest chance of becoming effective drugs. "This has the potential to be a game-changing approach," says Watowich.

Without WCG, he couldn't have pursued this path. "We've worked with supercomputers before," he says, "but there's no way we could say, 'We'd like half your supercomputer for the next six months. Would that be a problem?' " Watowich conducted experiments on a 1,000-computer test grid of his own, but even a network that small took six months to get up and running and proved demanding to maintain. "Now," he says, "IBM does the heavy lifting."

Doing something by doing nothing
"You haven't joined yet?" Willner asks. "Can I scold you?"

The IBM team is acutely aware that its public grid is only as effective as the public allows it to be. The challenge is finding more volunteers and keeping them. As big as WCG is, it represents about 1% of the world's estimated computer population. Often, says Willner, people have to get over any misplaced fear about what the download does. "It's 'dumb' software," she says. "It can't follow you or read your hard drive." All it can do is perform a few specific tasks: determine if the machine is free, run the algorithms it has been assigned, and transfer the results to WCG servers in Toronto. The fact that there have been no security breaches or viruses instills trust.

Rather than use all of the available computing power, the program is set to draw 60%. "We don't ask users to keep their machines on 24/7," says Berstis. "We tell them, 'Use it as you normally would. Everything works the same on your computer. This is running in the background.' " If you want to track the activity, a screen saver provides a running tally of which project the machine is working on and its progress. WCG assigns points for the computations, awards badges for point totals, and ranks individuals and teams. "People go nuts for the points," says Berstis. "There are lots of bragging rights."

Worldwide, there are several dozen large public grids, says Berstis.Their membership tends to top out in the tens of thousands, while WCG continues to grow by several thousand members a week. Although IBM promotes the effort on Facebook, at conferences, and internally, the volunteers themselves are the best recruiters. Some 400 companies and schools that have signed on as partners receive marketing tools to spread the word. Today, people on some 24,000 teams — from Slashdot Users (3,953 members) and Facebook (382) to Team Boulder (413), run by teenage brothers Grant and Max Buster in Colorado — blog and post Web videos about the grid.

For her senior project at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, Moran went door-to-door, installing the WCG program. She and her classmates persuaded the college president to send a campus-wide email encouraging participation. The campaign slogan: "When doing nothing is doing something." It wasn't a tough sell. "I think everybody would like to do more volunteer work, but they don't have the time," Moran says. "This is easy, even for the busiest people."

Berstis and his colleagues realize that for many volunteers, joining WCG is more gratifying than writing a check to fund research. It's an opportunity to participate, to feel a part of the scientific journey toward a life-changing solution. That's why project names have evolved from the esoteric (Human Proteome Folding) to the inspirational (Help Conquer Cancer, the Clean Energy Project, and FightAids@Home). For developer Larry Mezias, one of more than 109,000 IBM employees on the grid, FightAids@Home is deeply personal. His cousin died of the disease in the early 1990s. The screen saver on his home computer means he is doing something on behalf of his cousin — funny, easygoing Tony. "It makes me feel good," Mezias says. "I feel like I'm giving some meaning to the loss in my family." And some hope for a breakthrough in the future.

Readers can join Fast Company's team on the World Community Grid by clicking here.

Follow Chuck Salter and Fast Company on Twitter. 


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45 Comments

  • Lambert Shaw

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  • I want to share my testimony on how i get cure of my HERPES GENITAL with the help of Doctor clement,i have being suffering for this disease for a very long time now.i have try several means to get rid of of the (HERPES) disease for the last four years and had constant pain, especially in my knees. During the first year,I had faith in God that i would be healed someday.This disease started circulate all over my body and i have been taking treatment from my doctor, few weeks ago i came on search on the internet if i could get any information concerning the prevention of this disease, on my search i saw a testimony of someone who has been healed from (Hepatitis B and Cancer) by this Man DR clement and she also gave the email address of this man and advise we should contact him for any sickness that he would be of help, so i wrote to DR clement telling him about my (HERPES Virus) he told me not to worry that i was going to be cured!! hmm i never believed it,, well after all the procedures

  • I want to share my testimony on how i get cure of my HERPES GENITAL with the help of Doctor clement,i have being suffering for this disease for a very long time now.i have try several means to get rid of of the (HERPES) disease for the last four years and had constant pain, especially in my knees. During the first year,I had faith in God that i would be healed someday.This disease started circulate all over my body and i have been taking treatment from my doctor, few weeks ago i came on search on the internet if i could get any information concerning the prevention of this disease, on my search i saw a testimony of someone who has been healed from (Hepatitis B and Cancer) by this Man DR clement and she also gave the email address of this man and advise we should contact him for any sickness that he would be of help, so i wrote to DR clement telling him about my (HERPES Virus) he told me not to worry that i was going to be cured!! hmm i never believed it,, well after all the procedures

  • I want to share my testimony on how i get cure of my HERPES GENITAL with the help of Doctor clement,i have being suffering for this disease for a very long time now.i have try several means to get rid of of the (HERPES) disease for the last four years and had constant pain, especially in my knees. During the first year,I had faith in God that i would be healed someday.This disease started circulate all over my body and i have been taking treatment from my doctor, few weeks ago i came on search on the internet if i could get any information concerning the prevention of this disease, on my search i saw a testimony of someone who has been healed from (Hepatitis B and Cancer) by this Man DR clement and she also gave the email address of this man and advise we should contact him for any sickness that he would be of help, so i wrote to DR clement telling him about my (HERPES Virus) he told me not to worry that i was going to be cured!! hmm i never believed it,, well after all the procedures

  • I want to share my testimony on how i get cure of my HERPES GENITAL with the help of Doctor clement,i have being suffering for this disease for a very long time now.i have try several means to get rid of of the (HERPES) disease for the last four years and had constant pain, especially in my knees. During the first year,I had faith in God that i would be healed someday.This disease started circulate all over my body and i have been taking treatment from my doctor, few weeks ago i came on search on the internet if i could get any information concerning the prevention of this disease, on my search i saw a testimony of someone who has been healed from (Hepatitis B and Cancer) by this Man DR clement and she also gave the email address of this man and advise we should contact him for any sickness that he would be of help, so i wrote to DR clement telling him about my (HERPES Virus) he told me not to worry that i was going to be cured!! hmm i never believed it,, well after all the procedures

  • Sandy James

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  • Sandy James

    All thanks to Dr olokum, I am here to share a good testimony of my self on how i came in contact with a real herbalist who helped me. i appreciate everyone for taken their precious time to read my testimony, 6 months ago i was diagnosed of HIV, this means that 6months ago i was HIV positive when i told one of my good friend about this, she sympathized with me and then she said that she was going to help me out, she told me that we should do some research on the internet, we came across Dr olokum and my friend said that she has come across a lot about him and said that he is a real herbalist remedy to all illness, i was really surprised on this and confused as well, I was so speechless and quickly i contact him to help me and he prepared some herbs for me and send it across to me and he told me the way i was going to be taken the medicine which i did, and in the next 2 weeks i went to the hospital and they said that i am now hiv negative, i am very happy about this, when i contacted Dr

  • Sarah Anderson

    I can’t believe this. A great testimony that i must share to all HERPES SIMPLEX VIRUS patient in the world i never believed that their could be any complete cure for Herpes or any cure for herpes,i saw people’s testimony on blog sites of how Dr SUKU prepare herbal cure and brought them back to life again. i had to try it too and you can,t believe that in just few weeks i started using it all my pains stop gradually and i had to leave without the herpes the doctor gave to me. Right now i can tell you that few months now i have not had any pain, and i have just went for text last week and the doctor confirmed that there is no trace of any herpes system on my body. Glory be to God for leading me to this genuine to Dr SUKU I am so happy as i am sharing this testimony. My advice to you all who thinks that their is no cure for herpes that is Not true ,just contact him and get cure from Dr SUKU his website: http://greatsukusolutiontemplehotmailcom.webs.com/ to your HERPES SIMPLEX VIRUS and y

  • Sarah Anderson

    I can’t believe this. A great testimony that i must share to all HERPES SIMPLEX VIRUS patient in the world i never believed that their could be any complete cure for Herpes or any cure for herpes,i saw people’s testimony on blog sites of how Dr SUKU prepare herbal cure and brought them back to life again. i had to try it too and you can,t believe that in just few weeks i started using it all my pains stop gradually and i had to leave without the herpes the doctor gave to me. Right now i can tell you that few months now i have not had any pain, and i have just went for text last week and the doctor confirmed that there is no trace of any herpes system on my body. Glory be to God for leading me to this genuine to Dr SUKU I am so happy as i am sharing this testimony. My advice to you all who thinks that their is no cure for herpes that is Not true ,just contact him and get cure from Dr SUKU his website: http://greatsukusolutiontemplehotmailcom.webs.com/ to your HERPES SIMPLEX VIRUS and y

  • Sarah Anderson

    I can’t believe this. A great testimony that i must share to all HERPES SIMPLEX VIRUS patient in the world i never believed that their could be any complete cure for Herpes or any cure for herpes,i saw people’s testimony on blog sites of how Dr SUKU prepare herbal cure and brought them back to life again. i had to try it too and you can,t believe that in just few weeks i started using it all my pains stop gradually and i had to leave without the herpes the doctor gave to me. Right now i can tell you that few months now i have not had any pain, and i have just went for text last week and the doctor confirmed that there is no trace of any herpes system on my body. Glory be to God for leading me to this genuine to Dr SUKU I am so happy as i am sharing this testimony. My advice to you all who thinks that their is no cure for herpes that is Not true ,just contact him and get cure from Dr SUKU hie website: http://greatsukusolutiontemplehotmailcom.webs.com/ to your HERPES SIMPLEX VIRUS and y

  • Sarah Anderson

    I can’t believe this. A great testimony that i must share to all HERPES SIMPLEX VIRUS patient in the world i never believed that their could be any complete cure for Herpes or any cure for herpes,i saw people’s testimony on blog sites of how Dr SUKU prepare herbal cure and brought them back to life again. i had to try it too and you can,t believe that in just few weeks i started using it all my pains stop gradually and i had to leave without the herpes the doctor gave to me. Right now i can tell you that few months now i have not had any pain, and i have just went for text last week and the doctor confirmed that there is no trace of any herpes system on my body. Glory be to God for leading me to this genuine to Dr SUKU I am so happy as i am sharing this testimony. My advice to you all who thinks that their is no cure for herpes that is Not true ,just contact him and get cure from Dr SUKU hie website: http://greatsukusolutiontemplehotmailcom.webs.com/ to your HERPES SIMPLEX VIRUS and y

  • Sarah Anderson

    I can’t believe this. A great testimony that i must share to all HERPES SIMPLEX VIRUS patient in the world i never believed that their could be any complete cure for Herpes or any cure for herpes,i saw people’s testimony on blog sites of how Dr SUKU prepare herbal cure and brought them back to life again. i had to try it too and you can,t believe that in just few weeks i started using it all my pains stop gradually and i had to leave without the herpes the doctor gave to me. Right now i can tell you that few months now i have not had any pain, and i have just went for text last week and the doctor confirmed that there is no trace of any herpes system on my body. Glory be to God for leading me to this genuine to Dr SUKU I am so happy as i am sharing this testimony. My advice to you all who thinks that their is no cure for herpes that is Not true ,just contact him and get cure from Dr SUKU hie website: http://greatsukusolutiontemplehotmailcom.webs.com/ to your HERPES SIMPLEX VIRUS and y

  • Sarah Anderson

    Hello friend my name is Mabel Johnson am from uk ,this is unbelievable i have be suffering for {Genital Herpes virus}am giving a testimony about how Dr SUKU the great Herbalist, he has the cure to all manner of diseases, he cured my herpes simplex virus, though I went through different website I saw different testimonies about different spell casters and herbalist, I was like: 'Many people have the herpes simplex virus cure why are people still suffering from it?' I though of it, then I contact Dr SUKU via email, I didn't believe him that much, I just wanted to give him a try, he replied my mail and Needed some Information about me, then I sent them to him, he prepared it (CURE) and sent it to Courier Service for delivery, he gave my details to the Courier Office, they told me that 3-5 days I will receive the package and i took the medicine as prescribed by him and I went for check-up 1 week after finishing the medicine, I was tested genital herpes virus negative,his website:http://gre

  • Sarah Anderson

    Hello friend my name is Mabel Johnson am from uk ,this is unbelievable i have be suffering for {Genital Herpes virus}am giving a testimony about how Dr SUKU the great Herbalist, he has the cure to all manner of diseases, he cured my herpes simplex virus, though I went through different website I saw different testimonies about different spell casters and herbalist, I was like: 'Many people have the herpes simplex virus cure why are people still suffering from it?' I though of it, then I contact Dr SUKU via email, I didn't believe him that much, I just wanted to give him a try, he replied my mail and Needed some Information about me, then I sent them to him, he prepared it (CURE) and sent it to Courier Service for delivery, he gave my details to the Courier Office, they told me that 3-5 days I will receive the package and i took the medicine as prescribed by him and I went for check-up 1 week after finishing the medicine, I was tested genital herpes virus negative,his website:http://gre

  • Sandy James

    and he told me he was going to prepare for me a healing portion, which he wanted me to take for days, and after which i should go back to the hospital for check up, well after taking all the treatment sent to me by LORD KAKA i went back to the Hospital for check up, and now i have been confirmed HIV/HERPES Negative, friends you can reach LORD KAKA on any treatment for any Disease he is the one only i can show you all up to, reach him on kakasolutiontemple@gmail.com or call +16464937118

  • Judith Sandra

    HOW DR SALAMI CURE MY HERPES DISEASE EMAIL DR SALAMI NOW, IF YOU NEED HIS HELP HIS EMAIL: salamispelltemple@gmail.com THANKS YOU ALL

  • Judith Sandra

    I'm giving a testimony about Dr. Salami the great Herbalist, he has the cure to all manner of diseases, he cured my herpes simplex virus, though I went through different website I saw different testimonies about different spell casters and herbalist, I was like: 'Many people have the herpes simplex virus cure why are people still suffering from it?' I though of it, then I contact Dr. Salami via email, I didn't believe him that much, I just wanted to give him a try, he replied my mail and Needed some Information about me, then I sent them to him, he prepared it (CURE) and sent it to Airfreight Online Courier Service for delivery, he gave my details to the Courier Office, they told me that 3-5 days I will receive the package and i took the medicine as prescribed by him and I went for check-up 1 week after finishing the medicine, I was tested herpes simplex virus negative, if you are herpes simplex virus patient do me a favor for you to contact him and I will try my possible best to make

  • Christabel Smith

    This is real take it serious, who will believe that a herb can cure 5 years HIV in my body, i never believe that this will work i have spend a lot getting drugs from the hospital to keep me healthy, what i was waiting for is death because i was broke. One day a friend of mine in UK came to visit me and saw my condition was getting worst, then she told me about this great man from African called Dr Iyare who cured her sister from HIV and cancer of the breast, she told me that he is well known in curing HIV/AIDS, HERPES (HSV1, HSV2) and CANCER etc. I decided to email him, unknowingly to me that this will be the end of the HIV aids in my body, he prepare the herb for me, and gave me instruction on how to take it, at the end of two weeks, he told me to go to the hospital for a check up, and i went, surprisingly after the test the doctor confirm me negative, i thought it was a joke, i went to another hospital, it was also negative, then i introduce my friend who was affected with Herpes d

  • Christabel Smith

    This is real take it serious, who will believe that a herb can cure 5 years HIV in my body, i never believe that this will work i have spend a lot getting drugs from the hospital to keep me healthy, what i was waiting for is death because i was broke. One day a friend of mine in UK came to visit me and saw my condition was getting worst, then she told me about this great man from African called Dr Iyare who cured her sister from HIV and cancer of the breast, she told me that he is well known in curing HIV/AIDS, HERPES (HSV1, HSV2) and CANCER etc. I decided to email him, unknowingly to me that this will be the end of the HIV aids in my body, he prepare the herb for me, and gave me instruction on how to take it, at the end of two weeks, he told me to go to the hospital for a check up, and i went, surprisingly after the test the doctor confirm me negative, i thought it was a joke, i went to another hospital, it was also negative, then i introduce my friend who was affected with Herpes d

  • Clara Porter

    hello everybody my name is Clara porter i am from USA,i want to thank this great herbal Dr, called agagbe. please he is a great man and there is nothing he can not do about diseases, HIV has been ongoing in my family for long..I lost both parents to HIV and it is so much pain has not been able to get over. As we all know medically, there is no solution or cure for HIV and the cost for Medication is very expensive. Someone introduced me to a man (Native Medical Practitioner) . I showed the man all my Tests and Results and I told him i have already diagnosed with HIV and have spent thousands of dollars on medication. I said I will like to try him cause someone introduced me to him. He asked me sorts of questions and I answered him correctly. To cut the story short, He gave me some medicinal soaps and some herbs(have forgot the name he called them) and he thought me how am going to use them all. At first I was skeptical but I just gave it a try. I was on his Medication for 2 weeks and I u