Volunteer Computing Project Helps Smash Childhood Cancer

By Tiffany Trader

February 1, 2017

On Tuesday, IBM announced that its World Community Grid will provide free virtual supercomputing power to a global team of scientists engaged in the fight against childhood cancers.

Every year, approximately 300,000 children and teens are diagnosed with cancer and about 80,000 die of cancer (source). Although the outlook for cancer diagnosis in children has improved greatly, the disease remains the number one cause of death by disease in this population beyond infancy. Thanks to a partnership with the World Computing Grid, scientists with the Smash Childhood Cancer project will be able to run large-scale drug simulations on thousands of donated CPU cycles, enabling the search for a treatment or cure.

Dr. Akira Nakagawara

The Smash Childhood Cancer project formed to identify drug candidates to treat neuroblastoma and other childhood cancers. Dr. Akira Nakagawara, an internationally renowned pediatric oncologist, molecular biologist and CEO of the Saga Medical Center KOSEIKAN, in Japan, leads the project. In 2014, Dr. Nakagawara established the Childhood Cancer project, which used IBM’s World Community Grid to identify several promising drug candidates to fight neuroblastoma.

“We were excited by the idea of such massive computing power being available for our research,” Dr. Nakagawara said Tuesday in a blog post. “We also liked the community aspect: World Community Grid is for everyone, and anyone with a computer and an internet connection can participate. With the help of computing power donated by volunteers, we were able to make a breakthrough discovery of seven potential drug candidates that destroyed neuroblastoma cells in mice, and crucially, did so without causing any apparent side effects.”

In addition to advancing potential neuroblastoma treatments, the new Smash Childhood Cancer project will expand the search for other forms of childhood cancers, including brain tumors, Wilms’ tumor (malignant tumor of the kidney), germ cell tumors (which impact the reproductive and central nervous system), hepatoblastoma (cancer of the liver) and osteosarcoma (cancer of the bone).

The global Smash Childhood Cancer team includes expert researchers from Japan (Chiba University and Kyoto University); China (The University of Hong Kong in Hong Kong); and the United States (Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, The Jackson Laboratory, and the University of Connecticut School of Medicine).

Like other volunteer computing efforts, such as SETI@home and Folding@home, the World Community grid is comprised of thousands of PCs and mobile devices that execute “embarrassingly parallel” workloads while connected over the web. Since 2004, the IBM-operated World Community Grid has harnessed the power of more than 3 million computing devices, assisting worthy causes with over one million years of computing time. To date some 28 projects have been supported, furthering investigations into cancer, HIV/AIDS and tropical disease research and advancing solar technology and low-cost water filtration systems.

It’s easy for concerned citizen scientists to contribute. All it takes is signing up, then downloading and installing a free app on your computer or Android device. When the device is idle, spare compute cycles run experiments on behalf of the research team and the results are transmitted back to researchers who then analyze the data.

Here’s a short video describing the Smash Childhood Cancer project:

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