School computers helping fight virus, cancer

By Dave Taylor

While Hancock County students were isolating at home, their computers were hard at work trying to find a cure for cancer, and most recently, for the COVID-19 pandemic that has brought much of the world to a standstill. The district is part of Dataseam, a grid of computers in 48 school districts in the state that all work together to use their respective computing power for research computations that would otherwise take decades. The grid was formed in 2003 by the Kentucky General Assembly to harness the combined power of school computers to find a cure for cancer in conjunction with the University of Louisville.

But in mid-March, the computers were turned toward the new foe, the coronavirus, and it’s already making forward progress.“In these unprecedented times, we had a resource where we could potentially make an impact quickly and switch over from some of our cancer targets to SARS-CoV-2 targets,” said John Trent, Ph.D., who conducts virtual screenings for University of Louisville, in a press release.

A program on each computer allows remote access to it, where researchers can use the computers to handle pieces of a larger project, enabling them to work together as a mainframe of sorts. In return, the participating schools get Mac computers at a steep discount.

Greg Payne, Hancock County Schools’ chief information officer, estimated that each Mac he got last year cost $130 after all expenses were paid. “An iMac goes for about $1,000 for a cheap one,” he said. “So it’s been a fantastic thing for the district… We’re at roughly about 500 computers that they’ve provided to us that are on the grid right now today doing research.”

The district agrees to leave each computer on for at least 70 percent of the day, so the program can be busy doing calculations in the background, which Payne said is unnoticeable by users. “Each one has a limit so they can’t just absorb a computer,” he said. “So most of the time a student or staff member never know when research is going on.”

The collective processing power of all participating districts means progress on fighting COVID-19, and cancer, which benefits everyone. “What they’ve been able to do is something that would take a lifetime for a researcher to figure out, he’s able to eliminate almost all the variable that’s won’t work and he can concentrate on the ones that are most likely to succeed,” he said. “And by doing this they’ve been able to develop I think four or five different cancer drugs that are on the market now. And it’s drugs that would not be on the market any time in our lifetime because there are so many variables.”

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