Smallpox Researchers Seek Help From Millions of Computer Users


esponding to worries that smallpox could become a weapon of bioterrorism, a group of research universities and corporations and the Defense Department are announcing today a networked computer project intended to accelerate the search for a cure for smallpox.

The project is to use computing power contributed by a few million personal computer owners linked to the Internet worldwide to try to winnow the number of chemical compounds that might show promise in combating smallpox.

The goal is to use the results to develop drugs to thwart the smallpox virus after infection.

The only defense against smallpox today is preventive vaccination. The Bush administration has proposed vaccinating hundreds of thousands of American health workers, followed by millions of firefighters, police officers and ambulance workers.

The administration's plan has run into resistance from some health experts who are concerned about the side effects and efficacy of a widespread vaccination program.

The new smallpox research program is a collaborative effort of chemical and biological experts from institutions like Oxford University and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center; companies with expertise in creating and using computer grids, including I.B.M., United Devices and Accelrys; and the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.

To succeed, the project will need help from a few million people willing to contribute the unused computing power of their home or office personal computers. Their spare computer cycles will be the source of the computing firepower - more, collectively, than the world's largest supercomputer - to search for smallpox-fighting compounds.

Steady advances in processing power, network capacity and software have made it possible to assemble distributed computing networks that can be directed at a problem like smallpox. A comparatively simple but well-known distributed computing application is the SETI@home program, begun in 1999, which harnesses the spare power of millions of personal computers to seek signs of extraterrestrial intelligence.

The smallpox computing project will work similarly. A person clicks to register and download a screen saver program from a Web site, When the machine is turned on but not in use, the program uses it as part of the computing grid.

The project will use molecular modeling and screening techniques to test how strongly a wide range of druglike compounds interact with an important enzyme used by the smallpox virus. The goal is to find molecular compounds that block the enzyme, called topoisomerase, preventing the virus from replicating.