PS3 users to help in fight against disease

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Sony PlayStation 3 users are to put aside games and help scientists fight diseases by lending the supercomputer power of their consoles to a new network.

Sony Computer Entertainment America on Thursday announced a partnership with Stanford University’s Folding@home programme, a distributed-computing project aimed at understanding protein folding, misfolding and related diseases.

The Stanford project is studying how proteins fold to see better how they sometimes do so incorrectly in the human body, causing diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, cystic fibrosis and many cancers.

The complexity of the process has led to scientists developing computer simulations, but trying to do this on one computer can take up to 30 years.

Stanford has assembled a grid of 200,000 PCs for Folding@home, similar to the ongoing SETI@home project launched by the University of California at Berkeley in 1999. That uses more than 5m computers around the world and has logged more than 2m years of computing time to carry out a search for extra-terrestrial life.

Stanford sends packets of data out to each machine to analyse and collects, tabulates and visualises the results.

PS3s contain a revolutionary cell processor that has supercomputer powers through its use of multiple cores or brains. Their involvement is expected to accelerate dramatically the programme – a network of just 10,000 PS3s would have as much power as the existing 200,000-strong PC network.

Sony expects to have sold 6m PS3s by the end of this month, but it has not released estimates of how many will be connected to the internet.

From next week, PS3 users will be able to join Folding@home by clicking on an icon in the console’s menu bar. Whenever the PS3 is idle, it will begin the simulations.

The power of the PS3’s graphics chip will also allow users to watch the protein folding in real time in vivid colour. They can also manipulate and zoom in and out of the protein strand.

“With PS3 now part of our network, we will be able to address questions previously considered impossible to tackle computationally, with the goal of finding cures to some of the world’s most life-threatening diseases,” said Vijay Pande, head of the Stanford project.

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