White-Hat Hackers Leverage Computing Network To Help Predict COVID-19 Behavior

A group of white-hat hackers working for a security vendor is leveraging one of its tools to help simulate how the COVID-19 virus works. The group is supporting a virus research effort known as Folding@Home.

TEAMARES, a research team within security company Critical Start, has found that its hash cracker Cthulhu can run simulations that resemble the complicated folding process occurring in biological viruses. Having made this discovery, it has begun to share its results with Folding@Home.

F@H, a distributed computing project, simulates protein dynamics, including the process of protein folding and the movements of proteins implicated in a variety of diseases. Its work brings together “citizen scientists” who agree to let F@H run protein dynamics simulations on their personal computers.

Several research labs are involved in running the F@H project, including the Bowman Lab at Washington University in St. Louis, the Chodera Lab at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, the Voelz Lab at Temple University, the Izaguirre Lab at Notre Dame, the Kasson Lab at the University of Virginia and the Lindahl Lab at Stockholm University.

The F@H project resembles the decades-old SETI@home effort, which uses Internet-connected, distributed personal computers to search for extraterrestrial intelligence. SETI@home, which is based at UC Berkeley, has been in operation since 1999.

F@H is already at work simulating the dynamics of COVID-19 proteins to hunt for new therapeutic opportunities, along with researching issues related to breast cancer, kidney cancer, epigenetics and the p53 tumor protein, a gene that can function as a tumor suppressor.

Now, using Cthulhu, TEAMARES has added its firepower to the effort, and is now processing jobs directly from F@H using its CPU and GPU processing power. The data generated by the team’s efforts are then used by F@H to further research viruses.

While it’s interesting to see how the hackers of Critical Start are working to help F@H meet its goals, it’s even more intriguing to examine the role distributed computing might play in helping to understand and eventually tame COVID-19. Then, we can hopefully apply this to other diseases.

As SETI@home has demonstrated, many people are willing to lend their processing power to a distributed computing project if they support the project’s goals. It currently has 5.2 million participants.

Given the urgent need to understand the virus and stop its spread, it seems likely that a project dedicated directly to tackling the COVID-19 problem would attract a huge number of participants. Here’s hoping someone makes that happen soon.

About the author

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.