Cancer Medicine

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Edited by: Qingyi Wei, M.D., Ph.D.
Online ISSN: 2045-7634
Impact Factor: 3.202

April 07, 2014

IBM Supercomputer Screens 3 Million Molecules in Hunt for Cancer Medicines

Chiba Cancer Center Research Institute, an affiliate of Chiba University, has discovered seven novel drug candidates that could potentially be used in new medicines that fight childhood neuroblastoma, one of the most common and dangerous childhood cancers.  Initial tests showed that even at remarkably low doses, these drug candidates are very effective at killing cancer cells with no immediately apparent side effects.  This promising development has been published in Cancer Medicine, a respected, peer reviewed journal.

Researchers identified these molecules with the help of IBM and the general public, which funneled computing power to researchers. Scientists were then able to screen more than three-million chemical compounds to find drug candidates in a massive, virtual chemistry experiment that would have taken more than 55,000 years if performed on a personal computer with a single-core processor.  

Instead, researchers shrunk the process to just two years by using IBM's World Community Grid.  This is a virtual, crowdsourced supercomputer that IBM provides the science community at  no charge for a variety of humanitarian research projects involving big data, and which gets its strength from the surplus power of temporarily "idle" computers, smartphones and tablets owned by volunteers worldwide.

In neuroblastoma cancer patients, nerve cells experience unchecked growth and eventually become malignant tumors. The defective protein responsible for this runaway growth had never been successfully targeted.  Using "Autodock" software developed by The Scripps Research Institute to automatically perform millions of computer simulations in lieu of painstaking traditional chemistry experiments, Chiba identified seven molecules that killed cancerous tumor cells in mice.  The researchers are now seeking a pharmaceutical firm with which to collaborate on further development and testing needed to produce an approved medicine.

"There were millions of potential molecules to examine, making it infeasible to synthesize and test each of them in the laboratory," said Akira Nakagawara, M.D., Ph.D., President of the Chiba Cancer Center. "Instead, we partnered with IBM’s World Community Grid to create the Help Fight Childhood Cancer project, using computer-based modeling on a massive scale to conduct this search.  This breakthrough was made possible by the support of volunteers around the world who donated their computing power through World Community Grid. On behalf of our research team, I would like to thank World Community Grid volunteers from the bottom of my heart." (More from Dr. Nakagawara can be seen on the CitizenIBM blog and World Community Grid Web site.)

Other cancer research projects running on IBM's World Community Grid include one that launched recently called "Mapping Cancer Markers," conducted by the Princess Margaret Cancer Center in Toronto.  In that initiative, scientists are studying the genetic clues -- known as "markers" or "signatures" --  in human blood and tissue that are associated with cancer.  More insight will be useful for detecting and treating cancer earlier and more effectively with more customized approaches. As with all research performed on IBM World Community Grid, results of the study will be made available to the entire scientific community.

The Mapping Cancer Markers project is one of many research initiatives that have benefited from, and been enabled by, IBM's World Community Grid. Unlike some other distributed computing initiatives, World Community Grid emphasizes a diversity of practical, humanitarian research projects, such as for new medicines, cleaner water, more efficient energy, and healthier food.  

All told, more than 2.3 million PCs, Macs, smartphones and tablets used by over 650,000 people and 460 institutions from 80 countries have contributed power for projects on World Community Grid. The result is one of the fastest virtual supercomputers on the planet, advancing scientific work by hundreds of years. By the end of 2013, at least 23 projects were running or had been completed as part of World Community Grid. Since its inception in 2004, this resource created and managed by IBM has provided research scientists with the equivalent of more than 850,000 years of computing at no cost to them.