IBM's Watson computing system broke new ground earlier this year when it defeated two celebrated human competitors on the Jeopardy! game show. Now, The Scripps Research Institute is hoping to do something equally novel but more critical to human health with part of the prize money from that tournament: Find a cure for drug-resistant malaria. And it's asking for the public's help.
To that end, Scripps Research and IBM (NYSE: IBM) are encouraging anyone in the world with a personal computer to join World Community Grid, a sort of "supercomputer of the people" that will crunch numbers and perform simulations for "GO Fight Against Malaria" -- the project that Scripps Research and IBM have launched at http://www.worldcommunitygrid.org.
World Community Grid is fed by spare computing power from the nearly 2 million PCs that have been volunteered so far by 575,000 people in more than 80 countries. It gives each PC small computing assignments to perform when the devices aren't otherwise being used by its owners, then sends the results to scientists seeking a faster way to cure disease, find renewable energy materials, create clean water techniques, or develop healthier food staples.
Scripps Research, which has already used World Community Grid to discover two promising new inhibitors of HIV to advance the treatment of multi-drug-resistant AIDS, is now taking on the malaria project, as well. By tapping into World Community Grid -- which turns seven years of age today -- Scripps Research scientists hope to compress 100 years of computations normally necessary for the effort into just one year. The scientists will use this resource to more quickly evaluate millions of compounds that may advance the development of drugs to cure mutant, drug-resistant strains of malaria. Data from the experiments will then be made available to the public.
"Working on malaria started as a hobby that I advanced during nights and weekends for a couple years, when I wasn't working on FightAIDS@Home," said Alex L. Perryman, Ph.D., a research associate in Scripps Research Professor Arthur Olson's lab. "With persistence and a lot of help from IBM and from fellow Scripps Research scientists, we are now ready to launch the largest computational research project ever performed against drug-resistant malaria."
Said Stanley S. Litow, IBM vice president of Corporate Citizenship & Corporate Affairs, and President of IBM's International Foundation: "Welcoming a second project on World Community Grid from The Scripps Research Institute speaks volumes about the Institute's caliber, and demonstrates that it shares our commitment to make the world a better place. Curing the most malicious strains of malaria will be a boon to so many people on the planet, and will lead to conditions in which societies everywhere can flourish. A project like this illustrates the way in which we are committed in particular to places like Africa, Asia and South America, which have emerged onto the world stage in recent years."
There is no reliable cure or vaccine for the prevention and treatment of all forms of malaria -- particularly the drug-resistant strains caused by Plasmodium falciparum, which kills more people than any other parasite and is of particular interest to the researchers.
In 2006, 247 million people became infected with malaria. Nearly 1 million deaths are caused by malaria each year and 85 percent of those are children, who die from the disease at a rate of one every 30 seconds. In fact, malaria is the leading cause of death in Africa for those under age five. According to the World Health Organization, malaria is both a disease of poverty and a cause of poverty; survivors are often subject to impaired learning, school absences, lost work and increased economic distress. Where prevalent, the disease can account for 40 percent of all public health costs.
Earlier this year, scientists for seven World Community Grid projects received half the $1 million first-place prize from a Jeopardy! game show tournament that saw IBM's Watson computing system compete successfully against two former human champions. (Watson, named after IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, was built by a team of IBM scientists who set out to overcome a longstanding scientific challenge -- building a computing system that rivals a human's ability to answer questions posed in natural language with speed, accuracy and confidence.)
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