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May 7, 2009

ULM scientists access supercomputer to battle cancer

Assistant Professor Dr. Seetharama D.S. Jois devotes about half his time to educating students in the University of Louisiana at Monroe's College of Pharmacy; the other half he devotes to researching solutions to some of life's most vexing problems.

One such vexing problem is a cancer-producing protein, HER-2, which keeps antigens at bay in breast cancer patients.

For more than a year, Jois and his assistants have fought a virtual war with the protein by creating cancer-killing molecules on computers and studying potentially useful treatments.

Now Jois has an ally in that fight - LONI - and it's akin to enlisting support from a whole army of soldiers.

LONI - the Louisiana Optical Network Initiative - is bringing together the best of the state's research universities and their professors using a state-of-the-art, fiber optics network.

The intellectual capital and super-computing power behind the network is invaluable for researchers such as Jois, who studies models of proteins with drug-like molecules to learn how to more effectively disrupt cancerous cell growth - a necessary, though time-consuming proposition when modeled on less efficient computers.

"Working through LONI is much faster, much more efficient, because of the computing power it offers," said Jois. "What used to take 30 days to process might now be achieved in less than one week."

LONI enables experts across different fields of study to more easily collaborate - from computer scientists to chemists to biologists - and researchers like Jois no longer have to burn up valuable time and money driving back and forth to Baton Rouge to present key findings.

In fact, researchers like Jois share the results of their work with other scientists, not in person, but using the supercomputing grid that is part of the second phase of LONI's implementation across the state.

His research is funded through the Louisiana Biomedical Research Network, which was established to enhance the quality of biomedical research in the state by increasing access to top-notch research infrastructure such as LONI.

Thomas Whatley, ULM's director of computing services, has been involved with LONI since the early stages of its development.

He said ULM's access to the grid centers on a 50-teraflops supercomputer called Queen Bee, located in the state Information Systems Building in downtown Baton Rouge.

One of the top 50 supercomputers in the world, Queen Bee has at least half of its computational cycles contributed through a network known as the TeraGrid community, which in turn allows LONI researchers access to TeraGrid's national resources.

"ULM provides a path for others to access the LONI connection as well, so information can flow either way in that loop," said Whatley. "The plan is to make LONI available to our region of the state and actually allow a path to Arkansas in the not-too-distant future."

Whatley said the project has been a major boon to the northeastern part of Louisiana.

"LONI allows many groups to interact using one device to solve complicated problems in timely fashion," he said. "Together we can achieve things we simply could not do independent of one another."

Meanwhile, Jois is focused on using the additional $55,000 in grant funding he was awarded to try and unlock the secrets of effectively engaging in and stop the signal generated by the HER-2 protein, found in roughly 30 percent of women with breast cancer tumors.

And, perhaps with a little help from LONI, his research might just make all the difference in the world to a cancer sufferer some day - whether in Louisiana or Liechtenstein.

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