Washington University Researcher's Project Lets You Fight COVID-19 With Your Home Computer

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Dr. Gregory Bowman’s team uses a distributed computing network to make massive computational problems more manageable. - MATT MILLER/WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY
  • MATT MILLER/WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY
  • Dr. Gregory Bowman’s team uses a distributed computing network to make massive computational problems more manageable.

Josh Bradley works as a patent examiner at the United States Patent and  Trademark Office. There's plenty of work to do on his computer as he sits, wondering if his brother, who works as a paramedic-firefighter in St. Louis, will bring home COVID-19 to his wife and children.

When COVID-19 came to St. Louis, Bradley wanted to help the best way he knew how as someone who has a plethora of science skills and time on his computer. Gregory Bowman, an assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics at Washington University School of Medicine, had an answer for Bradley in the form of a computer simulation.



"When COVID-19 started to become the public health disaster it's become, I wanted to contribute my computer to this cause and help scientists find a cure or a vaccine as quickly as possible to save as many lives as they can," Bradley said. "Folding@Home presented that opportunity."

Folding@home is a research simulation run by Bowman and fueled by a vast network of home computers across the world. Volunteers such as Bradley download software that allows the project to tap unused processing power on their machines, collectively providing enough raw computing muscle to rival the world's mightiest supercomputers.



The software runs several projects in order to help speed up processes for vaccines or potential cures for diseases like cancer, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and most recently, COVID-19. The research looks for potential binding sites to which a drug can attach. Bowman hopes to help design compounds that bind the sites and pass the information to experimental collaborators for testing.

The demand for a COVID-19 simulation from those who want to help has put significant time pressure on Bowman and his team of volunteers. The crew has yet to work on coronaviruses, so there's been a lot of background research to figure out what exactly they need to simulate in order to produce the best results.

"We’d all like to see progress on COVID-19 sooner rather than later, and we have so many volunteers who are eager to help run simulations," Bowman says. "We have enormous compute needs, and it would be a shame if any of our volunteers left because we didn’t have a simulation ready for them to do yet."

The simulation has produced success so far. The team has uncovered potential binding sites for a drug through the simulation. Bowman says the amount of volunteers has gone from 30,000 to over 2 million.

"This level of support for our work is amazing, and we’re putting everything we’ve got into trying to make the most of it," Bowman says.

Bradley dedicates his computer every hour of the day to the project. He has always found medical research personal with his family and friends having a wide range of medical problems from cancer to muscular dystrophy to cystic fibrosis.

The simulation requires almost no work on Bradley's part. He starts his computer and the software runs in the background as he goes on about his day. Users can select when the software runs, whether it's when the device is connected to power or when the computer goes idle.

The Folding@Home screensaver running on Josh Bradley's compute shows a 3-D representation of the work the unit is simulating at the time you're viewing it. - SCREENSHOT COURTESY OF JOSH BRADLEYJOSH BRADLEY
  • SCREENSHOT COURTESY OF JOSH BRADLEYJosh Bradley
  • The Folding@Home screensaver running on Josh Bradley's compute shows a 3-D representation of the work the unit is simulating at the time you're viewing it.

"It's no different than installing an app on your phone, then forgetting about it," Bradley says. "There's no less time-consuming way for someone to help advance medical research."

Volunteers can download the software from Folding@home's website. If you register a username, the software saves statistics on your contributions and will rank you based on how much work you produced per day, week, or month.

"I'm happy to help further this medical research in any way that I can, and this is just one example of something that anyone with a computer can do," Bradley says. "Imagine what humanity could achieve if all of our unused processing power were funneled into these worthy causes — the billions of computers advancing medical research as they sit idle at any moment."
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