Forget flying toasters. The new screensaver lets you watch molecules while their ability to block cancer is being tested.

Screensaver, Lifesaver?

Remember SETI@home, the project that lets your computer help search for intelligent aliens in its spare time? On 3 April, the University of Oxford announced that it wants to enlist your PC in a more down-to-earth cause: scanning millions of molecules for their cancer-fighting potential.

By using many small, privately owned computers, researchers can tackle computational problems they could not otherwise expect to crack in their lifetime--not even with supercomputers. The idea is simple: A mammoth computing task is divided into countless small packets and sent to personal computers, which work on them in the background; the results are sent back to a central computer over the Internet. The approach was pioneered 5 years ago by SETI@home, which now employs more than 2 million computers to process radio astronomy data in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. In recent years, several similar initiatives have been launched.

Now, researchers at the University of Oxford are asking computer users to download a screensaver-like program called THINK, which plans to compute how some 250 million molecules interact with 16 target proteins known to play a role in cancer. The goal is to identify potential blockers of the proteins. Subscribers receive an initial package of 100 virtual molecules; in return for their participation, they get to watch virtual models of possible drugs being tested--plus the satisfaction of helping a worthy cause. During the first day, some 30,000 people downloaded the software from United Devices, the company that distributes it, says Keith Davies of the Oxford University Centre for Computational Drug Discovery.

Scientists applaud the initiative. "This is tried and tested technology," says Michael Sternberg, who heads the Biomolecular Modeling Laboratory at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund in London. "There are proven cases where computer models have played a valuable role in drug development." And the screensaver may have an additional bonus for the field: "Involving people directly can only enhance interest in supporting cancer research," Sternberg says.

Related sites

United Devices, where THINK can be downloaded


Posted in Math