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Sun Joins Grid Computing Craze; Partners With Sengent on Project to Fight Bioterrorism

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Sun Microsystems threw its hat in the bioinformatics grid computing ring last week in a partnership with Sengent, the latest firm to apply its distributed computing technology to the life sciences. Sun will provide the infrastructure to support Sengent''s web-based effort to identify small-molecule drugs to treat anthrax, smallpox, and other diseases caused by biowarfare agents.

Sengent is encouraging volunteers to download its Drug Design Optimization Lab (D2OL) software from its website (www.sengent.com). The software draws from existing libraries of over 2 million small-molecule compounds to identify those with significant promise in neutralizing the effects of target pathogens.

The D2OL project focuses on two areas right now: the Anthrax Lethal Factor protein and several proteins associated with smallpox pathogenicity.

Sun has agreed to contribute several products and services to the effort, including Sun Servers and Sun StorEdge Arrays.

Sengent COO Doug Nassaur said the company launched in late 1999 to target the financial services industry, but soon realized its distributed computing technology could be applied to life science research as well. Following in the footsteps of its competitors in the market, the company had been planning a web-based research project to demonstrate its technology — along the lines of United Devices'' and Parabon''s support of cancer research.

Nassaur noted that the events of September 11 and the recent anthrax scare in the US made it clear that finding treatments for biowarfare agents would be the best application of the technique''s promise to speed drug discovery.

Although there has been limited publicity for the project so far, Nassaur said the program is being downloaded “once per minute.”

Nassaur said Sengent decided to partner with Sun “after looking at some of the other major players in the market, IBM and a few others that had established themselves.” Sengent will use the Sun infrastructure as the “central brain” of the remote nodes that make up the distributed network of desktop PCs connected via the web.

Sia Zadeh, group marketing manager at Sun, noted that the timeliness of Sengent''s project in light of recent events piqued Sun''s interest as much as its technology.

But as necessary and timely as the project may be, Sengent''s ultimate goal is to convince biotech and pharma that distributed computing will speed their drug discovery efforts, an area where several competitors, such as United Devices, Parabon, and Entropia, have already had a head start. However, Nassaur said Sengent''s technology is unique compared to its competitors, whom he said offered “first-generation” distributed computing technology.

Sengent uses platform-independent smart agents that are in constant bi-directional communication with the central scheduling resources — a feature that Nassaur said is not available through its competitors, who use less sophisticated batch-processing managers. “We felt that to have application in rapid drug discovery, the nodes had to be smart,” he said.

Nassaur added that Sengent''s smart agents and middleware also allow third-party applications to run on the distributed network with very little modification.

He described the company''s potential role as that of a consultant “to find the appropriate mix between traditional computing resources, distributed computing resources, and the appropriate science to build a virtual supercomputer” for its clients.

By combining Sun''s infrastructure with a customized middleware and smart agent configuration, Nassaur said he''s certain Sengent will find a place in the emerging distributed computing market.

— BT

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