Using a supercomputer to battle cancer

  @FortuneMagazine August 15, 2013: 4:30 PM ET
FIO02 supercomputer

A snapshot of the proteins in our blood plasma


Dr. David Agus, the author of The End of Illness and a professor of medicine and engineering at USC who treated Steve Jobs, is a frustrated man. He points out that despite all the billions poured in R&D we've barely made a dent in reducing cancer rates. Agus believes we need an entirely different approach to battling cancer. What if you could tell when your body first starts to grow cancer and then cut it off early? One way to do that, he believes, would be to read our proteins -- those building blocks of life that can give us a real-time picture of what's actually going on in our bodies. Says Agus, "we talk about cancer as a noun, as if it's a one time event: "I've got cancer." But the body is changing all the time. We should think about it instead as a verb: "I'm cancering." The trick would be to pick up on early signs of when a person started to "cancer" and then nip it in the bud.

In theory that sounds promising. In practice, there's a huge problem: How do you measure the body's hundreds of thousands of proteins, which are changing constantly? Dr. Agus figured he needed massive computing power to do that so he called Danny Hillis, the inventor and entrepreneur who founded Thinking Machines, a company that helped to develop parallel supercomputing, and who later worked for Disney's Imagineering animation division. Hillis didn't return his calls. The computer whiz, who now runs the consultancy Applied Minds, then got calls on the same day from Al Gore and John Doerr, urging him to return Agus's call. So Hillis did. "David says to me, 'I see people dying everyday, and we have to have a window into proteins.'" Hillis was sold.

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