Ordinarily, the computers at L2M Architects in Glen Burnie work on commercial design projects: sketching plans for airport food courts, Joseph A. Bank clothing stores and Panera bread shops.
But for the past seven months, whenever the architects weren't at their keyboards, their desktop PCs became quiet volunteers in the battle against bioterrorism - a global search for drugs to cure smallpox.
The results are in. A worldwide network that harnessed the downtime on 2.4 million computers in more than 190 countries, the Vatican and Antarctica, has trimmed years from the research effort by winnowing 35 million potential smallpox drug molecules down to a few thousand with promise. Now scientists can test those molecules in the lab at the Army's biodefense research center at Fort Detrick in Frederick.
"With all our volunteers, we have more computing power than the entire pharmaceutical industry," boasts Graham Richards, chairman of the chemistry department at Oxford University in England and a key organizer of the Smallpox Research Grid.
It is one of the highest-profile projects that researchers have developed over the past five years to organize thousands, or millions of personal computers to spend their idle time nibbling at problems that would give supercomputers fits.
Partly in Richards' honor, the British Embassy in Washington will be host for a ceremony today at which a compact disk bearing the data on promising anti-smallpox molecules will be presented to scientists from the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID).
There have been psychological benefits, too, for more than 1 million people who donated their computers' spare time to the smallpox cause by merely downloading a screen saver from United Devices, a Texas company that specializes in the fast-growing field of grid computing.
"Being not far from D.C. and living through the anthrax attacks, you have a real awareness of the threat from bioterrorism," said Scot D. Loiselle, a principal in L2M Architects. He signed up a half-dozen computers at work and two at his Ellicott City home in the drug hunt. "For us, it's a painless feel-good. It's kind of cool being part of this bigger picture," he said
Since the average PC's microprocessor is actually in use less than 10 percent of the time, according to IBM estimates, the Smallpox Research Grid was able to put massive computing power to work for free on a Mount Everest-size problem.
The scientists had already identified 35 million molecules with known characteristics that make them drug candidates. But using the donated computing power, they could mathematically try out each molecule to see whether it would bind to an enzyme that allows the smallpox virus to reproduce. It was like trying 35 million keys in a very complicated lock and hoping a few would fit.
"If you shut that enzyme down, the virus can't replicate itself," says John W. Huggins, chief of the viral therapeutics branch at the Army research center. "You're basically trying to clog up the process."
Huggins' lab will take the next step, by testing many of the selected molecules in the lab, first against other pox viruses, such as cowpox, monkeypox and vaccinia. Finally, the most promising drugs may be matched up against the smallpox virus itself, using monkeys infected with the disease in a high-security lab at the federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.
"We hope to find a real gem," Huggins says.
For centuries one of the scourges of humankind, smallpox was eradicated as a disease in the 1970s by a mass vaccination program led by the World Health Organization.
Officially, only the CDC and a lab in the Russian city of Novosibirsk still have research supplies of the deadly virus. But health officials fear that some of the tons of smallpox virus that the Soviet Union produced for weapons use during the Cold War - or samples hidden in other countries - might fall into the hands of terrorists.
The United States abandoned routine smallpox vaccination in the early 1970s. And last year's crash effort by the Bush administration to vaccinate health care workers and emergency personnel fell far short of its goal, partly because potential recipients feared the small risk of severe or even fatal reactions.
"If you vaccinated everyone in America, you'd kill a few hundred people," Richards said.
So, health officials are eager to find a safe, effective drug that could be given to people infected by a future smallpox attack.
Using computers to hunt for promising drug candidates is so well-established today that it has a nickname. Researchers call it in silico - as in silicon chips - just as research in glass test tubes is called in vitro. But the search for smallpox drugs has attracted little commercial interest because there's no established market.