Analyze This

A Boca Raton tech company seeks an antidote for anthrax and dotcom failure

It then becomes possible for a home PC to identify testing candidates -- and possible antidotes for -- anthrax, smallpox, Ebola, and SARS. In fact, on the project website (www.d2ol.com), users can track how many candidates their computers have identified. The Rothberg Institute subsequently tests those candidates and also makes D2OL's results available to the larger scientific community. "They crank out several hundred thousands of candidate tests per week," Molinari says. "That is then pro-actively looked at, evaluated, and tested in a lab in collaboration with advisers at Yale, Harvard, and other medical schools around the country."

D2OL currently has 50,000 volunteers in 84 countries, but the project is not unique. Other grids employ volunteer computers to identify possible cures for AIDS and cancer. The most popular is the Search for Extraterrestrial Life's SETI@home, run by the University of California at Berkeley. More than 4 million people in 236 countries volunteer processing power to analyze radio waves from deep space.

Although the SETI project has yet to discover alien civilizations, D2OL has made important findings. In April, the project identified an essential protein in the SARS virus. Four weeks later, German scientists published the same findings from an independent study in the journal Science.

D2OL has also recognized more than 12 million candidates for lab testing. "If we did this on one computer, it would take eons," Gould Rothberg explains. "By the time we'd have candidates identified, we'd be old and gray."

However, since Sengent is a for-profit corporation, early reports in the technology press questioned whether the Boca Raton company's motives were less than altruistic. Creating software to fight bioterrorism isquite a marketing angle.

"I'm a bit dubious about Sengent's motives for a few reasons," one D2OL participant told Wired News last year. "They have appeared from nowhere at a time when bioterrorism is a big news media story, and I think they're exploiting that."

But that seems unlikely today. If the project were a marketing gimmick -- and, indeed, it would be a clever one -- surely it's been too expensive and more time-consuming than such an effort would have been worth.

And whatever marketing benefits the project might offer, it has yet to influence Sengent's bottom line. Although in March the company released the final edition of its financial grid software, called ClariFI, Sengent hasn't yet reached profitability. That might explain why Molinari scoffs at the notion that his nonprofit drug-testing project is a publicity gimmick.

He looks out his conference-room window and points across Mizner Boulevard. Here's where, in September 2001, a letter addressed to Jennifer Lopez introduced the United States to bioterrorism. "They evacuated that post office," Molinari remembers, shaking his head in disbelief. "We were all scared. We didn't know what to do or where to go. We were shaking at our desks."

And so maybe, with Sengent's help, more than 50,000 volunteer computers can work together to identify an antidote for the anthrax that plagued Boca Raton. Wouldn't that be one hell of a publicity stunt?

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