Folding@Home: Helping to find cures for disease

Many of you have heard of Distributed Computing and are aware of its benefits. Stanford University’s PandeGroup Folding@Home project is a great example of this model.

Here’s how it works: people throughout the world download and run software to band together, to find the cause and cure for diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease, Cancer, Parkinson’s disease and others. Alzheimer’s alone affects more than 5 million Americans. It afflicts one in eight people 65 and older and nearly one in two people over 85. Worse, as the population ages, Alzheimer’s is steadily rising. Sixteen million are forecast to have the mind-destroying illness by 2050, not counting other forms of dementia.

There are currently more than 97,000 teams in over 98 countries worldwide (consisting of almost 900,000 individual computers) participating in this project, but it’s not enough. The amount of processing that needs to be done is mind-boggling.

At the risk of this becoming a boring science lecture, here’s an introduction to the science behind this project and the reason we need more people to join.  Proteins are the basis of how biology gets things done.  In order to carry out their function (as enzymes or antibodies), they must take on a particular shape, also known as a “fold.”  Thus, proteins are truly amazing machines: before they do their work, they assemble themselves!  This self-assembly is called “folding.”  It’s amazing that not only do proteins self-assemble — fold — but they do so amazingly quickly: some as fast as a millionth of a second. While this amount of time is mind boggling to a person’s timescale, it’s remarkably long for computers to simulate.  In fact, it takes about a day to simulate a nanosecond (1/1,000,000,000 of a second).  Unfortunately, proteins fold on the tens of microsecond timescale (10,000 nanoseconds). Thus, it would take 10,000 CPU-Days to simulate folding — i.e. it would take 30 CPU years!  That’s a long time to wait for one result!  It’s believed that when these proteins “miss-fold,” disease begins.

In July of 2007, a group of us “regulars” who frequently read and posted on the Dell Community Forum decided to start a team and join the Folding@Home project. Thus, TEAM_XPS was formed.  It was my first experience with distributed computing, and I was pleasantly surprised.  First of all, it was easy to install.  Second, it wasn’t a “resource hog”.  The program would use the idle CPU cycles when I was not using my PC and then it would go idle whenever I was.  This was a huge relief to me since I play a lot of games and didn’t want my machines performance to be affected.  Then something else happened.  The project became fun…and a little competitive!

Stanford University awards points to the team (as well as the individual) for every completed work unit. It started as an inter-team rivalry. We all wanted to be the top contributor. Members were enlisting computers from family members, friends, even their office computers.  Before we knew it, we were climbing the ranks as a team.  To date, we have climbed into the ranks of the top 150 teams (out of 97,000+) that is a testament to the power of our XPS and DIY machines!

Over the past few months, our membership has grown steadily (as well as our points’ totals) to a total of 76 members. Some have family members that suffer from these diseases, some are hoping a cure will be found before they themselves get such a disease, and others just like the friendly competition.  We have all makes and models of PC’s on our team, but since we all originally met on the DCF XPS boards, we petitioned Dell for permission to use their copyrighted Dell XPS logo as the basis for a team logo, and Dell (Itself a supporter of F@H) allowed it. We also have a thread on the Dell Community Forum where members help each other with Folding@Home-related issues and PC issues.  We’ve become pretty good friends while doing our part to help with this project.  It would be impossible to encompass the entire experience to this point with a single blog post.

More information on Stanford University’s Folding@Home project can be found at their official site where you could also download the software. If you’re interested in joining Team_XPS, first step is to download the software. When prompted, enter 80856 for the Team Number, and that’s it. If you need help, leave comments to this post, or you can visit us at Team_XPS’ DCF and RSF threads.

Please feel free to visit us on our thread and feel free to ask any questions. We encourage all to join our team and help this project reach its goals.

With our gratitude to Lionel, DCF and Dell for giving us the opportunity to post this blog; God Bless All.

About the Author: Jeff Dickinson