Many schools return dividends to their communities, on top of educating children, such as allowing use of their meeting and recreation spaces. But a partnership in Kentucky is taking that idea into an unusual arena: aiding cancer research by sharing computers.
Several school districts are letting Louisville-based cancer researchers use their instructional computers—when students aren’t using them—to help discover new drugs and other treatments.
A technique known as “grid computing” harnesses the schools’ computer networks and groups of selected machines to work in concert, like a giant computer, to solve very large problems.
Researchers at the Brown Cancer Center, part of the University of Louisville, have been using a grid of nearly 100 desktop computers in the 10,000-student Caldwell County schools to distribute three-dimensional models of several proteins that are implicated in tumors of the prostate, lung, and breast.
Taking data models of millions of chemical compounds, the computers essentially try to fit molecules together, indicating a match that might work as a drug, said John O. Trent, the center’s director of molecular modeling.
Normally, such work would take months of expensive time on a supercomputer, he said. But the researchers at the nonprofit center are using the school computers for free.
“It’s a way of using taxpayers’ money that’s already being used for a good cause in schools,” Mr. Trent said.
In the virtual-screening project’s pilot test, which began last spring and has been kept running continually, the grid has already identified some matches.
“We’ve found some hits that are cancer-selective-compounds that rank highly and are binding to a particular protein,” Mr. Trent said. Scientists will examine the most promising of those “hits” using biological testing, which does not involve the schools.
Tapping Computing Power
Grid computing has become standard in many industries, notably in the drug industry. Several research universities have set up grids to use the latent power of the computers they provide for student use, according to Ron Watkins, a grid-computing expert at IBM Corp.
The idea of using school district computers on a grid was the brainchild of Brian Gupton, the chief executive officer of Dataseam LLC, a start-up company based in Louisville, according to Mr. Trent.
Mr. Gupton, a former Caldwell County schools’ student, organized the pilot test, and is trying to enlist districts across the state to help create a huge pool of excess computing power as a giant “utility” that could be used in many areas of scientific research. The effort is organized as the Kentucky Dataseam Initiative Inc., a nonprofit company funded by Dataseam and Belcan Corp., a Cincinnati-based engineering and technology services company.
David Couch, the assistant commissioner of Kentucky’s Department of Education, said he is encouraging school districts to join. “Ideally, we want the technology in the schools to help improve the communities themselves,” he said. The initiative took a big step last month, when Kentucky’s largest district, the 97,000-student Jefferson County system, which includes Louisville, signed on. That addition will increase the number of computers committed to the program by tenfold this fall. The 10,800-student Warren County district has also joined.
In Caldwell County, more than 90 eMacs—Apple Computer’s popular desktop computer—are now on the grid, up from about 50 eMacs last May.
“It worked out very interestingly,” said Rocky Sears, the systems engineer of the Caldwell County schools.
He said the grid and the computers on it run 24 hours a day, seven days a week. However, the researchers’ data-processing on the computers is put on hold whenever students start working at their machines.
The students and teachers have “no idea it’s happening,” Mr. Sears said. “The network’s very calm and quiet; we’ve asked teachers to use their machines as normal.”
One instructional computer in the grid controls the others, without connecting to the district’s administrative computers and servers. That setup alleviates potential security concerns.
To his relief, Mr. Sears said, the district’s participation in the grid has entailed only about an hour’s extra work for him—total—to update the eMacs with the latest operating system and install “remote desktop” software. He said those were chores he should have done anyway.
Plus, he can now monitor each of the computers on the grid from his home.
In the Jefferson County schools, 200 eMacs are now on the grid, and more than 500 eMacs will be added by January, said Alan K. Whitworth, who last month retired from being the district’s director of information technology.
The district’s overall computing potential includes 26,000 computers. About 14,000 of them are Macintoshes, which are more readily adaptable to the initiative than computers using the Windows operating system. That’s because the Macintosh operating system is derived from Unix, the system favored by many university researchers.
‘For the Common Good’
Mr. Whitworth said the importance of the research helped warm district officials to this expanded concept of community use.
“Generally, when we make gymnasiums available, or auditoriums or theaters, there’s a rental charge, but we thought this project showed so much promise for finding much superior treatment for various cancers; just for the common good was the main reason we agreed to it,” Mr. Whitworth said.
Mr. Sears of Caldwell County agreed: “Everybody’s been touched by cancer one way or another. The idea of doing cancer research on computers that are sitting idle really sells.”
Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.