While you sleep, your phone could be curing Alzheimer’s disease

Pretty much everything in biology comes down to proteins. They’re the building blocks for our bones, skin and blood vessels, the antibodies that keep us safe from disease and the signals that let us sense what’s around us. These tiny necklaces of amino acids can end up doing almost anything, and they achieve this mind-blowing level of complexity by folding themselves in billions of different shapes – one shape for bones, another for an eyeball etc…

Except sometimes, that folding process goes wrong. Scientists don’t yet fully understand how or why, but occasionally, in the millionths of a second that it takes for a protein to fold itself into a new shape, an error occurs and it’s these microscopic errors that lead to diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Dr Pande Headshot

For those searching for a cure, this presents an enormous challenge – even the slowest proteins fold themselves inside a few milliseconds, so it’s almost impossible to observe in a Lab environment.  There is, however, another solution. The Folding@Home lab, a team lead by Dr Vijay Pande at Stanford University, has been working since early in the new millennium on a piece of software that simulates the folding process and provides models that scientists can then study. It’s not an easy process, using thousands of hours of computing time to unfold each protein and it became clear early on that a new approach to building very powerful computers would be needed. Instead of simply building a huge super computer, Pande’s team built an application that uses the processors of a huge network other people’s computers, each chipping in with a bit of processor time – and it worked. The lab now has more than 150,000 computers connected to it and has published papers leading to major advances in the field.

Back in 2007 Sony began working on a partnership with Dr Pande and his team that would last until 2012, providing yet more power for his network of computers through a version of the folding application designed for the PS3. Together with Sony’s Playstations the lab was able to set a world record for the biggest distributed computing network in the world when it topped the “1 Petaflop” point – meaning that the network could complete a thousand trillion calculations a second. As Dr Pande and his team look to the future though, their sights are set firmly on the Smartphone.

In 2012, following a successful trial using its smartphones, the development team at Sony Mobile started looking at the computing power and possibilities for the smartphone and approached the Folding@Home team with a prototype of a mobile app. Following extensive testing and refinement, we’re pleased to say that the app as now available in a limited Beta for Xperia smartphones – and the potential is extremely exciting. The processor in a single Xperia smartphone is capable of performance in the 50 – 100 GFLOP range, though around 30 GFLOPS is more typical, meaning that it would take around 50,000 phones, working full time to equal the 2007 world record. With half a million smartphone users running the app we would more than double the power of entire the Folding@Home network today.

Computing Power Illustration

According to Dr Vijay Pande, a doctor in biology and structural chemistry at Stanford, and a key member of the Folding@Home team – all this power could dramatically speed up the fight against diseases like Alzheimer’s.

“In order to publish a new paper, something that represents a genuine step forward, we would need about 150,000 “phone – days”, that’s one phone running 24/7. Split that up amongst 10,000 and phones though and all of a sudden you’re looking at two weeks.

Folding@Home Screenshot

“The increase in computing capacity is having a real effect on what we can achieve, for example our work was recently used in a paper that featured in the Journal of Medical Chemistry on small-molecule drug candidates for the treatment of Alzheimers. It’s not a cure yet, but it is a major step forward, that brings a cure closer. There’s some light at the end of the tunnel and it’s down to these huge computer networks. The potential of smartphones in this space is enormous and we’re really pleased that Sony has been able to support us with this.”

For now, the beta version of the Folding@Home app, compatible with all Xperia Z series smartphones as well as the Xperia T3, T2 Ultra, M2 Aqua and C3 is available for download from Google Play here. Following the initial Beta release, it will be made available for all smartphones running Android 4.4 and above early in 2015.

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