At a presentation today at the Embassy of the United Kingdom in Washington, D.C., the results from the Anthrax Research Project sponsored by Intel, Microsoft, the University of Oxford, United Kingdom, the National Foundation for Cancer Research (NFCR), and United Devices were donated to the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom.
Last January, 2002, the groups donating the research asked computer users around the world to join with them in the Anthrax Research Project, an international effort designed to help scientists develop a treatment for the anthrax toxin.
Oxford Chemistry Department Head Graham Richards presented the results of the collaborative effort to First Secretary, Science & Technology, U.K. Embassy, Chris Pook, and Deputy Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Counterproliferation and Chemical and Biological Defense, U.S. Department of Defense, Anna Johnson-Winegar.
"The Department of Defense is very happy to accept this contribution and looks forward to enabling technology advances through molecular design studies based on the structures of the compounds that have been identified," said Johnson-Winegar.
Individual computer users participated in the project by downloading a screensaver and donating their personal computer's spare resources to build a virtual supercomputer capable of analyzing billions of molecules in a fraction of the time it would take in a laboratory or standard supercomputers. The screensaver worked by running whenever computation resources are available. Once processing was complete, the program sent the results back to the United Devices' data center and requested a new packet of data the next time the user connected to the Internet. The United Devices program incorporates a comprehensive system of security and privacy technologies to protect user privacy.
Recent work has shown that the anthrax toxin has three protein components. One of these proteins, the so-called "protective antigen," forms a ring. This ring binds with another protein, the "lethal factor," which facilitates the entry of the lethal factor into a cell. Harvard University discovered that this binding could be inhibited, preventing the resulting toxicity. Now, a group at Oxford University has identified the site on this key protein where the binding occurs-where the right molecular interaction may inhibit the binding and ultimately prevent the toxicity that results in disease.
The initiative is based on the successful Intel-United Devices Cancer Research Project that harnessed the computing power of 1.3 million PCs around the world to provide scientists access to a virtual supercomputer more powerful than the world's ten largest supercomputers combined. This Anthrax Research Project drew upon the same distributed computing technology to help scientists screen 3.57 billion molecular compounds against the fatal anthrax toxin protein with the hope of finding a subset of drug-like molecules that could render anthrax useless as a weapon.
Screening is only one step in a long drug discovery process that ultimately must move from the computational realm into the actual laboratory. The project used a 5-time redundancy rate for each molecule to ensure a high level of accuracy and quality. Had this project been undertaken using traditional methods, it would have taken years instead of less than 4 weeks.
Preliminary indications are that the original pool of 3.57 billion molecules has been narrowed down considerably, having identified over 300,000 crude unique hits in the course of the project. This screening phase has significantly reduced the next phase of the discovery process, in which the ranked hits will be further refined and analyzed, thereby accelerating the overall time to discovery and availability of a possible treatment.