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Sony PS3 powers Alzheimer's research

By Mike Nagle , 20-Mar-2007

Scientists hope to harness the power of Sony's new PlayStation 3 games console to conduct research on protein folding and associated diseases such as Alzheimer's and cancer.

Sony announced last week that its PS3 console will be able to partake in Stanford University's Folding@home project. The distributed computing project has been running since 2000 and takes advantage of the unused power of subscriber's home PCs to conduct protein folding research. The results are then sent back to the US scientists to analyse. "Millions of users have experienced the power of PS3 entertainment. Now they can utilise that exceptional computing power to help fight diseases," said Masayuki Chatani, chief technical officer at Sony Computer Entertainment. "In order to study protein folding, researchers need more than just one super computer, but the massive processing power of thousands of networked computers. Previously, PCs have been the only option for scientists, but now, they have a new, more powerful tool - PS3." The structure of proteins is critical to their function and yet, the process of protein folding is, in many ways, still a mystery. Also, proteins folding incorrectly or not at all have been implicated in several diseases, including Alzheimer's, Mad Cow (BSE), Huntington's, Parkinson's and several cancers. Unfortunately, there is a significant time barrier to further understanding this process through computational research - protein folding simulations can take up to 30 years for a single computer to complete. The Folding@home project shares the research among thousands of computers connected via the Internet, enabling the results to be calculated much faster. With over million members, Folding@home is perhaps surprisingly not the largest distributed computing network however. Grid.org boasts over three million members conducting science research at home. The project is powered by technology from United Devices, whose founders were involved in the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence project (SETI). The first project run by Grid.org was in conjunction with scientists from Oxford University and searched for new anti-cancer drugs - screening billions of small molecules against numerous proteins associated with cancer. Grid.org are currently also running a project that tries to unravel the secrets of protein folding. The 'Cell' processor at the heart of the PS3 is much faster than common, mainstream processors in PCs and could enable performance previously only possible with supercomputers, according to the scientists at Stanford. The advanced graphics capabilities of the console will allow users to display the actual folding process in real-time and also rotate and look at the protein from different angles in real-time. PS3 owners can join in once the latest software update becomes available at the end of March. A Folding@home icon will be added to the network menu on the machine to allow users to join the project. But users need not worry about their games slowing down - the programme can be set to run automatically only when the console is idle.

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