Michela Taufer, a computer scientist at the University of Delaware, wants to find a cure for HIV, and she wants your help. No ph.D.? No problem. She’s created Docking@Home, a project supported by the National Science Foundation, which uses idle computers to crunch the massive amounts of data that it requires to find novel disease fighting molecules. So far, over 6,000 volunteers have signed up to donate their unused computing power.
Taufer’s innovation tackles one of the thorniest problems in new-drug discovery: Before promising molecules can be tested in the lab, researchers have to use computer models to sift through infinite numbers of candidate molecules, looking for those with the right chemical structure. The process, called docking, is about brute force: The more molecules you can simulate, the better the change you have of finding one that’s right. But supercomputer time is expensive, with long wait-list. That’s why Taufer created Docking@Home, which distributes hundreds of thousands of computing tasks among the computers of volunteers.
Currently, they’re looking for protein inhibitors that would keep HIV from replicating itself, and therefore from spreading throughout the immune system. If you’re interested in helping, you can volunteer here, by installing an open-source software program called BOINC (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing), which senses your computer idle cycles and links them up to the Docking Server at the University ofDelaware.
Meanwhile, Taufer’s group is looking for an entirely different application, which would allow volunteers to “throw” a molecule at a protein, to test for a match. As she says, “Other people do yoga with a Wii. We are doing science.”