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Is UD playing fair in the P2P quest for cancer drugs?

Oxford University boffins speak to The Reg

Next month the one millionth person will download the screensaver that Oxford University boffins say will knock four years off the process of finding potential cancer-fighting drugs.

With the offer to have a poke around Oxford University, accompanied by a pub lunch with some of the top brains involved in the scheme, The Register travelled to the city of dreaming spires to see what all the fuss was about.

How's the project doing?
Judging by the grin on the face of Professor Graham Richards, Oxford University's head of chemistry who masterminded the SETI-style project -very well.

Launched in April, the scheme, which aims to search for drugs for 16 types of cancer, is growing much faster than expected. Organisers initially predicted they would get around a million computers hooked up to the program by the end of the year-long project. With 20,000 people currently signing up per week, they now expect to reach the million figure in half the time.

As a result, the university has increased the total number of molecules it aims to examine from 2.5 million to 3.5 billion (made up of 35 molecules with 100 derivatives of each).

How does the scheme work?
It's a peer-to-peer project, so people download the screensaver - which is a joint effort between Oxford University, US company United Devices, US charity the National Foundation for Cancer Research (NFCR) and Intel.

When computers are dormant, they are sent a unit of molecules and the software gets to work to see how they interact with different proteins that have been identified as possible targets for cancer therapy.

The analysis is carried out via software called THINK, developed by Oxford University research fellow Keith Davies), and when a molecule fits with the protein the computer gets a "hit". All hits are recorded, with the strongest ones eventually going forward to be used for the cancer drugs research.

There has been a lot of Reg reader debate over what exactly will happen to findings from the project. Will the data be sold by United Devices or will people be using their spare computer power to help line the pockets of the drugs companies?

Thankfully, no. According to Professor Richards, United Devices takes part because it has the server power to collect to results (with a little help from Intel), but all information will be sent to Oxford University at the end of the project. It will then be examined by staff at the university's chemistry department.

United Devices has volunteered its services for a year in order to publicise its business (peer-to-peer technology), but will not be able to sell any information gleaned from the research. Similarly, neither will Intel.

The NFCR will be able to sell the list of testable compounds to pharmaceutical companies, and will receive royalties that will go towards more cancer projects.

Oxford University will keep any patents as well as a royalty-free, non-exclusive license to use the intellectual property internally.

In effect, it is similar to aspirin - anyone can sell it, but there is only one brand name version of the drug.

It normally takes around ten years to go from an idea to the end drug, but the university reckons that using P2P will reduce this to around six years (the drugs still need to be tested by the pharmaceutical companies before they are put on the market).

Is it still only Windows OS users that can participate in the scheme?

Yes - despite United Devices saying back in April that it was working on making the program available for other operating systems, Mac and Linux users are unable to do their bit.

Which is strange, because the program is based on the same technology as SETI (which uses P2P to search for aliens), and there are lots of Mac SETI participants.

Professor Richards said he was disappointed the scheme had not been made available to users of other OSes, adding that there seemed to be "a lack of urgency" about it at the developers' end.

"It has always been our intention to make it as widely available as possible," he added.

It is a shame that Intel, which is sponsoring the event, has not been able to help open up a scheme for something as important as cancer research to non-Windows OS users.

It is also unfortunate that only Intel and United Devices have managed to get their names displayed on the screensaver.

There is no mention of either Oxford University or the NFCR anywhere on the screensaver, despite the university's repeated request to have its name accompany the two corporations.

Intel's reasoning behind excluding the university and the charity is that the project uses an Intel-based programme. "We are the overseers of the programme, so we have opted to put our name and United Devices' name on it," a representative said today. "We may run similar charity-based, peer2peer schemes in the near future," she added.

She chose not to comment on whether it seemed a little unfair that only Intel and UD got a mention.

And when asked if non-Windows OS users would ever be able to take part in the P2P quest for cancer drugs, she responded: "I don't know - everyone seems to be on Windows these days."

Which probably just about sums up Intel's attitude to this issue nicely. ®

Related Links

Oxford University's info on the P2P project
Download the cancer-busting software here, then join the Vulture Central II team here

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