TIME flu

Here’s Where to Find Out If You’re Likely to Get the Flu

It’s not enough to know if your state is a flu hot zone. Now you can find out if the street you live on is teeming with flu cases

With this year’s flu season nearing epidemic levels — it’s widespread in 43 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — prevention (and preparation) is certainly your best medicine.

Fortunately, there is no shortage of apps and websites that can help. Flu tracking is a popular subject, and ever since Google Flu Trends launched in 2008, it seems everyone wants to know how prevalent flu is — not just in their state and in their city, but in their neighborhood and even their office building. (Facebook can even help you figure out which of your friends might have given you the flu but tracking members’ posts about the illness and its symptoms.)

And while none are perfect, there are a few good ones.

The CDC’s FluView:

It gathers data from clinics, urgent care centers, doctor’s offices and hospitals and reports the number of people coming in with flu-like symptoms — fever, cough, sore throats, muscle aches — and people who test positive for the bug. It offers a good snapshot but it has some shortcomings. Because it logs symptoms in addition to diagnosed cases, there’s a chance that some of the fever and respiratory problems could be something else entirely. It also doesn’t record the countless people who likely just decide to weather out their illness at home with over-the-counter remedies or some chicken soup. There’s also a lag in the reporting, which means FluView can’t provide a real-time look at what the virus is doing at a given time.

The CDC has an epidemiologist studying alternative ways of collecting flu information, including crowdsourcing, to see if the CDC can provide more real time data. “There is potential there,” says Lynnette Brammer, an epidemiologist in the influenza division at CDC. “But with any data set you’ve got to know how to appropriately interpret that data and when you might be over reaching.”

MORE: Why Some Experts Want Mandatory Flu Shots For School Kids

Flu Near You:

This app is more granular, portraying in real time the actual level of flu activity in a given area. It can pinpoint your location down to the street and give you a low-moderate-high reading on flu activity. It’s based on self reports from people who register on the app and voluntarily provide information on their sniffle status on a weekly basis. Blue dots indicate people who are still symptom-free, while yellow dots indicate people who might have some of the symptoms of flu — including fever, coughs, or sore throats — and red dots represent people who meet the CDC criteria for influenza-like illness: fever over 100F and a cough or sore throat that’s not caused by any other known infection.

Self-reporting may not provide an entirely accurate picture either, however. To address such confounding factors, Flu Near Your deletes the first two reports by newcomers, to reduce the possibility that new users are just playing around with the app, but there’s still no way to verify the symptoms that people log in. But so far, Mark Smolinski, director of global health for Skoll Foundation Global Health Threats, which created the app, is confident that the reports are valid, since they track pretty well with the CDC data.

Alexis de Belloy, who pores over the Flu Near You data, says that registration for the app is up 40% compared to last year, and the proportion of them who actively respond to the weekly surveys is also up; the more participants, the stronger and more reliable the signal generated by the users.

The Flu Forecaster:

Jeffrey Shaman, professor of at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, decided to combine a bit of both the CDC and real-time strategies into his flu forecaster, which he launched last year. You can select your city and receive a chart of when flu is likely to peak where you live. It’s based on the same predictive modeling that weather forecasters use — combining information from past flu seasons and current trends to make educated guesses about the ebb and flow of cases in the future. “There are problems with all data, so I don’t think any data should be used in isolation,” he says. “We should consider them all until we have that gold standard.”

And it’s not just an academic exercise. Smolinski points out that critical public health information can be gleaned from flu tracking and forecasting, such as how effective a particular flu season’s vaccine is. By comparing rates of illness among people who have been vaccinated and those who haven’t, doctors can get a good sense of whether the shot is a good match for circulating flu strains or not. It can also help doctors, hospitals and pharmacies to make informed decisions about stocking flu remedies like Tamiflu so everyone who needs them will have access to them.

In Australia, crowd-based online surveillance is becoming the country’s go-to resource on flu tracking. Their system, FluTracking.net, asks participants about whether they have had a fever or cough every week during the flu season; since the program began in 2006, more than 16,000 people now complete the survey regularly. In Europe, 10 countries participate in Influenzanet, an online flu tracking system that also relies on volunteers to report on their symptoms weekly.

“It’s what’s coming down the pike, and what’s going to be in our future,” says Shaman of the real time information from the public. “We already get pollution levels and the pollen count. Why not have a real time flu forecast?”

TIME medicine

Why Working at Night Boosts the Risk of Early Death

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Image Source—Getty Images Nurses working more night shifts were at higher risk of dying early

Working while the rest of the world is sleeping may increase your risk of cancer and heart disease

Sleep isn’t just a time to rest and give your body and brain a break. It’s a critical biological function that restores and replenishes important body systems. Now, yet another study on shift workers shows that their unusual hours may be cutting their lives short—and that’s especially true for those who have rotating night shifts, rather than permanent graveyard duty.

In a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, scientists led by Dr. Eva Schernhammer, an epidemiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, studied 74,862 nurses enrolled in the Nurses’ Health Study since 1976. The nurses were an ideal group for studying the effects of rotating night shifts on the body, since RNs tend to have changing night shift obligations over an average month rather than set schedules.

MORE: The Power of Sleep

After 22 years, researchers found that the women who worked on rotating night shifts for more than five years were up to 11% more likely to have died early compared to those who never worked these shifts. In fact, those working for more than 15 years on rotating night shifts had a 38% higher risk of dying from heart disease than nurses who only worked during the day. Surprisingly, rotating night shifts were also linked to a 25% higher risk of dying from lung cancer and 33% greater risk of colon cancer death. The increased risk of lung cancer could be attributed to a higher rate of smoking among night shift workers, says Schernhammer.

The population of nurses with the longest rotating night shifts also shared risk factors that endangered their health: they were heavier on average than their day-working counterparts, more likely to smoke and have high blood pressure, and more likely to have diabetes and elevated cholesterol. But the connection between more rotating night shift hours and higher death rates remained strong after the scientists adjusted for them.

MORE: Why You Shouldn’t Read a Tablet Before Bed

The data support the idea that changing the body’s natural rhythms by being active at night and asleep during the day may have harmful consequences, especially if you shift this rhythm inconsistently. “It’s sort of like flying between London and New York every three days — constant jet lag,” says Schernhammer. “However, if you fly from London to New York and stay in New York, then jet lag would subside after a few days, and that’s what we assume happens in permanent night workers.”

Why does the body react when sleep cycles change? Previous studies showed that too little sleep or the kind that’s disrupted can alter melatonin levels so that the body never powers down and slips into restorative mode, a time when much-needed repairs are made to cells and tissues and supplies of nutrients are replenished to the body. Without this period of rest, important processes such as inflammation, fat and sugar metabolism and immune functions get out of balance, creating fertile ground for heart disease or cancer. The growing number of studies connecting shift work with unhealthy outcomes led the World Health Organization to classify shift work as a probable carcinogen in 2007.

MORE: These 6 Things Will Bring You a Great Night’s Sleep

Schernhammer and her colleagues show that the categorization may have merit, but not everyone can avoid night shift work. Researchers are studying how these people might counteract some of the effects of their unusual work hours, but none of these strategies, including light lamps and sleep aids, has so far been proven to help. In the meantime, she says that shift workers concerned about their risk should do everything they can to lower their risk of heart and cancer risk in other ways — by quitting smoking, getting enough exercise, eating a healthy diet and getting regular cancer screenings. “Hopefully in the near future we can also recommend additional measures that alleviate some of the strain that night work imposes on the circadian system,” she says, “by matching their shift schedules, to the extent possible, with their inherent sleep preferences — whether they are night owls or morning types.”

TIME Cancer

Your Chances of Surviving Cancer May Depend on Where You Live

Cancer deaths across the country have been dropping, but some states are doing better than others

In its annual report on cancer rates and deaths, the American Cancer Society (ACS) reports that deaths from cancer have dropped by 22% over the past 20 years, saving 1.5 million lives.

The review, published in the journal CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, included data from 2007 to 2011 and found that decreases in deaths from four major cancers—lung, breast, prostate and colon—are driving much of the improvement. More widespread screening, which is leading to early detection and treatment, is helping to find more cancers and manage them before they become fatal, says Rebecca Siegel, director of surveillance information for the ACS and lead author of the study. Deaths from prostate and colon cancers have dropped by almost half since their peak several years ago, and lung and breast cancer have declined by about a third from their highest rates.

But the data also show a disturbing trend of slower progress in southern states. On average, death rates in the lower part of the U.S. have declined by about 15%, compared to drops of 25% to 30% in Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts and New York.

The reason for the smaller declines, says Siegel, may have a lot to do with higher smoking rates in states like South Carolina and Kentucky, as well as more obesity and greater disparities in socioeconomic status. People with lower incomes are less likely to have access to cancer screening and treatment programs. “We are seeing large differences by state,” she says. “We need to reach everyone in the population with advances in early detection and improvements in treatment because they just aren’t equally disseminated. That’s why you see differences; it’s not just biology.”

The improvements in northeastern states shows that it’s possible. “If we could apply everything we know to everyone in the U.S., there would be enormous gains from just that,” says Siegel.

That’s especially important as the population continues to age. Since cancer is generally a disease of aging, the absolute number of cancer diagnoses, and potentially deaths, could increase. (In 2015, an estimated 589,430 Americans will die of cancer.) But expanding screening programs and ensuring that more people have access to them could help keep cancer rates and deaths trending downward.

Read next: Most Cancer Is Beyond Your Control, Breakthrough Study Finds

TIME Cancer

Most Cancer Is Beyond Your Control, Breakthrough Study Finds

There’s a lot we can do to protect ourselves from certain cancers — don’t smoke, avoid prolonged exposure to the sun, and try not to breathe or ingest too many chemical pollutants in the air or our food. But scientists have always known that this was only part of the cancer story. There’s also heredity, but that only explains about 5% to 10% of cancer. The truth of the matter is that some tumors emerge simply at random. But how much of malignancy can be attributed to this unfortunate roll of the dice? What really causes cancer?

Christian Tomasetti and Bert Vogelstein at Johns Hopkins University believe they may have found an answer, and it’s likely to turn our understanding of cancer — and how it should be diagnosed and treated — on its head. In a groundbreaking paper published in Science, the duo describe a new factor, a tissue’s stem cells, that may explain as much as two-thirds of the difference in cancer risk among different tissues.

Many tissues in the body have stem cells that serve as factories for churning out more cells of the same kind; it’s what keeps our skin cells refreshed, and our blood and immune cells young and vigorous. This replicative power is the engine that keeps the body going, allowing tissues to replace cells as they die off. But it’s also the process behind cancer, since cancer is caused by cells that pick up mutations in their DNA when they divide — and stem cells are the only population that copy their DNA and divide to make more cells. Only a small proportion of a tissue’s cells are made up of stem cells, so Tomasetti and Vogelstein decided to map out whether the number of stem cells in a specific tissue bears any relationship to its tendency to develop cancer.

MORE Promising New Cancer Treatment Uses Immune Cells

Indeed, when they charted out the stem cell data for 31 types of tissues, they found a dramatic connection between the two — the more stem cells the tissue had, the higher its incidence of cancer over a person’s life time on average. “Think of cancer as the risk of having an accident if you are driving a car,” says Tomasetti, a biostatistician who holds positions in the department of oncology at Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “If you drive the car on a cross country trip, your risk of an accident is much higher than if you take a local trip to the grocery store. The risk correlates to the length of the trip. The trip to the grocery store might be thought of as bone cancer, which has few stem cell divisions. While the cross country trip might be more like colon cancer, which has many more cell divisions.”

In fact, the correlation held strong among cancers that were both common and more rare. The more likely those cells would divide and develop DNA errors or mutations in the process that led to uncontrolled growth, the more likely that tissue would develop tumors.

“It was quite surprising to us. We think it’s pretty big,” he says. “About 65% of cancer incidence across tissue types appears to be explained by the number of stem cell divisions.”

MORE Stem Cells That Kill

Having a detailed understanding of both how large a tissue’s stem cell population is, as well as how active it is, could be a determining factor in whether it’s likely to develop cancer. Both the brain cells that can cause glioblastoma and medulloblastoma, and the colon contain about the same number of stem cells, Tomasetti estimates — about one hundred million. But the colon stem cells divide about 6000 times on average during lifetime, compared to nearly zero for the brain stem cells. That leads to rates of colon cancer that are 22 times higher than rates of the brain tumors.

PrintCredit: C. Tomasetti, B. Vogelstein and illustrator Elizabeth Cook, Johns Hopkins

Such an explanation could also resolve some of cancer’s mysteries — why people who don’t smoke still get lung cancer in surprising numbers, or why rates of colon cancer are higher than rates of cancer in the small intestine, despite being shorter in length. One reason, says Tomasetti, could have to do with the different stem cell activity in these tissues.

This finding potentially changes the landscape of cancer. In recent decades, cancer rates have come down due to aggressive efforts to educate and motivate people to take positive steps toward preventing cancer in the first place, such as quitting smoking and avoiding the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Have those messages been wrong?

Not exactly. Tomasetti says that the study shows that it’s time to redirect that cancer strategy a bit — not abandon it. For example, he and Vogelstein propose looking at cancers in two categories, those that are primarily due to genetic bad luck, and those that are due to that unfortunate roll of the genetic dice plus environmental or hereditary factors. So melanoma, ovarian cancer, many brain cancers, lung cancer among non-smokers, the most common leukemias and bone cancers, for example, are pretty much out of people’s control. They’re the result of the random mutations caused by the stem cells dividing in these tissues — bone, blood, ovaries, brain and skin — that make mistakes that turn malignant. For these cancers, changing your lifestyle or trying other interventions to stop the cancer from occurring in the first place won’t help. But being vigilant about screening, and picking up the first signs of trouble early, can be life saving.

MORE This New Kind of Stem Cell May Revolutionize How We Treat Diseases

For the other type of cancers, those that are the product of both stem cell mutations and heredity or other exposures, continuing with proven prevention methods, which include screening in cases of inherited disease, as well as quitting smoking and reducing exposure to radiation and carcinogens, is still critical. That’s what has lowered rates of lung cancer among smokers, for example, and colon cancer among those with hereditary disease.

“Everything we know about altering lifestyles to prevent cancer from the environmental point of view we absolutely need to continue doing,” says Tomasetti. “If anything it puts more stress on the need to spend even more money on early detection. It may be the key tool for quite a few cancer types.”

Tomasetti admits that two common cancers are missing from the study — breast cancer and prostate cancer. That’s because knowledge about their stem cell populations, and how often those tissues renew, isn’t quite as solid as it is for tissues such as colon. “We are working on that,” he says. “We hope this type of work highlighting the importance of self renewal will cause others to investigate these stem cell populations in more detail as well.”

In the meantime, he stresses that while we may not be able to prevent the tumors from forming, it’s still possible to treat them and potentially save lives by finding them early and removing them or using chemotherapy or radiation to keep them under control. “My biggest fear is that people will say forget about it, and then do nothing. The opposite is true. We need to do everything we did before, but we want to do it even more than before,” he says.

Read next: Your Chances of Surviving Cancer May Depend on Where You Live

TIME Obesity

Weight Loss Supplements Don’t Work for Most People, Study Finds

A Consumer Reports survey shows that most people who use weight loss supplements aren’t aware of how potentially unsafe or ineffective they are

In a survey of 3,000 Americans, researchers at Consumer Reports report Tuesday that most are confused about how weight loss supplements make it to market, and that means they aren’t fully informed about how safe or effective the pills are. What’s more, of those Americans who have tried such pills to lose weight, very few met—and maintained—their goal.

About 20% of those who use diet supplements to lose weight believed they were safe and tested by the Food and Drug Administration. But unlike prescription drugs, supplements aren’t regulated under the strict criteria that require manufacturers to perform rigorous safety and effectiveness testing before getting approved. Instead, supplements are regulated more like foods, so they are assumed to be safe unless they’re shown not to be by reports from users.

Meanwhile, roughly 20% of those surveyed believed that the supplements were safer than more stringently regulated prescription drugs because they were “natural.” But recent studies revealed that many supplements contain substances that have been banned because of safety concerns; in one study two-thirds of weight loss supplements contained banned ingredients. And the supplements aren’t always benign. About half of users reported at least one side effect, ranging from dry mouth to more serious digestive issues including diarrhea and constipation, as well as rapid heart rate.

When it comes to actually losing weight, the supplements didn’t fare so well either. A third didn’t shed any pounds at all, and only 9% of the respondents said they lost their target weight and were able to keep it off. But the supplements may not even take all of the credit for that success — 85% of the people who lost weight while taking a supplement also changed their diet and had an exercise plan.

Which goes back to the advice that most doctors give to anyone serious about getting slimmer: weight loss doesn’t come in a pill, it comes with a healthy diet and regular exercise program.

TIME medicine

The Surest Way to Cure Your Hangover

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Getty Images

The holidays. A new year. There’s a lot to celebrate, so don’t ruin it with a hangover or a food coma. Here's how to avoid both

A night of too much booze often comes with a side of queasiness and a pounding headache. We’ve all heard rumors about what helps, from hot sauce to burnt toast to more alcohol, but here’s what doctors say really works as a morning-after remedy.

First, it’s important to recognize what your hungover body is trying to tell you. Alcohol makes you urinate more, and that depletes your body of much-needed fluids. At the same time, impurities in the fermenting alcohol essentially flood your body with toxins, causing those painful side effects.

It’s not always easy in practice, but the best way to avoid that nasty hangover in the first place is to alternate your alcoholic drinks with water.

Too late for that? On the morning after, the very best way to ease your stomach is to drink water. Water will rehydrate you, dilute the toxins that have built up overnight and flush them out.

Eating is also key, whether you want to fight or prevent a hangover. Filling your stomach before you drink, especially with heavier, greasier foods, can line the stomach and slow down the absorption of alcohol. And noshing after a night out, even if it’s last thing you feel like doing, can replenish your body with nutrients so it starts to function better.

READ MORE Should You Eat Whatever You Want For The Holidays?

If you remember, try taking two aspirin before going to bed, and another couple when you wake up. That can ease some of the head pounding that comes from the drop in blood alcohol and being dehydrated from all that drinking.

As for overeating, it’s sometimes inevitable, especially at holiday feasts. Try to cut down on your portions, or at least eat more slowly. That can help your brain and body stay in sync and work together to determine when you’re no longer hungry. Extra points if you load up on high-fiber foods like whole grains, vegetables and nuts; they’ll make you evacuate your bowels more frequently and make you feel less uncomfortable. Just remember not to bring it up during one of those big meals.

TIME

Why You Shouldn’t Read a Tablet Before Bed

If reading is your way of easing into sleep, pick up a printed book instead of a digital one

There’s nothing wrong with settling down with a good book at the end of day to melt away tension and help you to unwind. But if you’re picking up an e-reader or a tablet, then you’re doing it all wrong.

That’s what Anne-Marie Chang, associate professor of biobehavioral health at Penn State University, and her colleagues found when they compared digital readers with the printed word. Reporting in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they say that people who use the electronic devices such as an iPad had more disrupted sleep patterns and were more tired the next morning than those who read from traditional books.

Chang, who conducted the study while at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, designed the trial to be as objective as possible. What Chang found was a marked difference between each participant’s sleep patterns and alertness depending on whether they read from a digital reader or from a book. When they read from an iPad, their evening levels of melatonin failed to drop as much as they should, while they remained at expected levels when they read from a book. That led to a delay in body’s biological signal to go so sleep of about an hour and a half, making the participants more alert and therefore not ready for bed.

And when the scientists looked at their sleep patterns, they found that the differences went even deeper. When the volunteers read from electronic devices, they had shorter REM sleep, the stage in which memories are consolidated and the brain refreshes itself, than when they read from printed books. This occurred even though the volunteers slept for the same amount of time, eight hours, every night.

MORE: 3 Reasons To Keep Your Phone Away from the Bed

What’s more, the effect of those differences in sleep patterns spilled over into the next morning. When they read from digital readers, the participants reported feeling sleepier and were less alert (as measured on standardized testing of alertness) than when they used books. “What was surprising to me was that we would see effects the next day. There was no difference in total sleep duration between the two conditions, but there was a significant amount of REM sleep difference,” says Chang. “This may indicate that these effects are longer term than we thought.”

Previous studies showed that one reason for the disrupted sleep linked to the electronic devices may be due to the type of light they use. It’s in the blue wavelength, and some researchers have connected this light to a disruptions in the melatonin system, similar to those Chang found in the study. She says it’s also possible that having the light shine directly into the eyes, as backlit electronic readers do, may also keep the body’s sleep signals from activating — reading lamps or room lights reflect light so aren’t as disruptive to the body’s wake-sleep cycle.

The findings hint at why sleep — getting enough, and getting good quality sleep — is becoming more a of challenge and potentially a growing health problem. “There is an easy answer but it’s not a popular one that’s easy to hear,” says Chang. “Using electronic devices is not a train that is slowing down any time soon. So the important thing is to know more about them, and how they are affecting our lives, our health and our well being.” And in the meantime, maybe put the tablet down in the hours before you go to bed. Or buy a book.

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TIME medicine

Here’s What Experts Say About the Advice on Dr. Oz and The Doctors

Experts evaluated the advice given on medical talk shows, and the results were surprising

Many Americans get their health advice not from their doctor, but from daytime television. But how good are those recommendations?

Reporting in the BMJ, Canadian researchers analyzed two medical TV talk shows—The Dr. Oz Show and The Doctors—and found that only 46% of the recommendations on The Dr. Oz Show and 63% on The Doctors were supported by evidence. 15% of advice given on Oz and 14% of advice on The Doctors contradicted the available published evidence in journals.

“The bottom line message is for people to be really skeptical about the recommendations made on these medical television shows,” says study co-author Christina Korowynk, associate professor of family medicine at the University of Alberta. “They should look for more balanced information to be presented, and understand that they need all of that information in order to make an informed decision.”

They measured 80 major recommendations made on the two shows from January to May 2013 against evidence gleaned from published studies in medical databases. They looked at both consistency—how much the conclusion was supported by the studies—and believability, which included the quality, number and type of study.

On average, Korownyk’s group found that both shows mentioned how the advice might specifically help a person in only about 40% of the recommendations, and they mentioned the amount of benefit, another aspect of useful health advice, in less than 20% of recommendations. (Harms were mentioned in less than 10% of the recommendations, and costs in less than 15%). She says that without such information on how much benefit and harm a particular recommendation might have, it’s hard for people to make informed choices about whether the advice is right for them.

Korownyk and her colleagues aren’t the first to cast doubt on the quality of advice given on the shows. In June a Senate subcommittee heard testimony from Oz on false advertising of weight loss claims and Sen. Claire McCaskill queried the doctor about the statements he made on the show. “I do personally believe in the items that I talk about on the show,” he said at the hearing. “We have to simplify complicated information. We have to make the material seem interesting and focus on the ‘wow’ factor.”

Representatives for The Doctors said in a written statement to TIME: “The Doctors was never contacted about the study or the article. Our producers and doctors all do their due diligence to make sure information provided on the show is sound, relevant and timely—often debunking the myriad of medical myths that abound in the media and across the internet.”

Members of The Dr. Oz Show wrote: “The Dr. Oz Show has always endeavored to challenge the so-called conventional wisdom, reveal multiple points of view and question the status quo. The observation that some of the topics discussed on the show may differ from popular opinion or various academic analyses affirms that we are furthering a constructive dialogue about health and wellness.”

Korownyk acknowledges that the exact impact of television health advice isn’t clear, since the study didn’t investigate how many of the recommendations people adopted and whether they had an effect on their health. But the advice is clearly reaching people. “What we’d love to see is a process on these shows where the evidence is reviewed in a critical manner, and presented in a balanced, objective way so the audience can understand,” she says. “As physicians, we are moving toward that, and we’d love to see the broader television personalities doing the same sort of thing.”

TIME ebola

How Your Tablet Can Help Find an Ebola Cure

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Photodisc—Getty Images

Anyone with a computer or Android smartphone can perform cutting edge research on the formidable virus

Mark McCaskill’s daughter is only 11 years old and so far knows only the most basic things about viruses and how they work. But she’s conducting pioneering biological experiments to find a treatment for Ebola. Or at least her Kindle is. When she’s not using it to listen to her favorite singers or watch the latest TV shows, her tablet is scanning thousands of chemical compounds, any one of which could turn out to neutralize, or even destroy Ebola and save thousands of lives.

That’s because her father, Mark, a transportation planning expert for Roanoke Valley in Virginia, signed up her Kindle, two of his own PCs and his mother’s computer to IBM’s World Community Grid (WCG), an innovative mass computing network that allows anyone to contribute in the fight against everything from brain cancer to polluted water and now, Ebola, by essentially offering to WCG their computer’s processing power when it’s not otherwise being used. Nearly 700,000 people have registered their Android phones or PCs on the WCG (the grid isn’t compatible with iOS yet, but IBM says it’s working on it).

“Some people volunteer in a traditional sense with Meals on Wheels. I think of this as my own personal form of volunteering, a new high tech way of volunteering,” says McCaskill.

There’s massive amounts of data out there that could prove revolutionary, but sifting through thousands—or millions—of compounds takes a whole lot of computing power. So every time McCaskill and his family members aren’t on their computers or tablet, their processing power is shunted to combing through the millions of compounds that exist in drug libraries that could be the answer to stopping Ebola in its tracks. Computational engineers call it “distributed computing,” but for the rest of us, it’s an opportunity to make like a world class biologist or immunologist or environmental scientist and indulge our inner science geek. In 1999, the team behind SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, began using a similar strategy to analyze reams of radio signals from telescopes for possible extraterrestrial communications.

WCG essentially turns each device into a circuit in a massive virtual supercomputer. Each supercomputing task, such as vetting millions of chemical compounds for any potential activity against Ebola, is broken down into more manageable chunks and shunted to individual devices. The data, which is downloaded to the WCG in real time, is then collected, digitally ‘cleaned’ and delivered to the researcher like a birthday gift, neatly packaged and containing valuable and eagerly awaited information.

The idea for the WCG was born at IBM Foundation, when Stanley Litow, vice president of corporate citizenship and corporate affairs, began getting numerous requests from desperate scientists for IBM to donate supercomputers for their work. Declines in federal science grants meant that few institutes could afford the cost of a supercomputer at the same time that many of the most critical scientific projects—such as querying enormous databases of chemical compounds for potential cancer treatments and compounds that can fight emerging diseases like Ebola—required massive computing power. “We came to the conclusion that it would be possible to try to solve this problem with a virtual super computer using grid technology if we could get enough people to sign up to combine their computing power,” Litow says.

People were more than willing to chip in. More than 3 million devices from 680,000 donors are registered on the WCG. One of the grid’s projects, Help Fight Childhood Cancer, conducted 9 million virtual chemistry experiments in five years and found seven promising agents that are being studied to fight a common childhood brain cancer. The Clean Energy Project evaluated 100,000 molecular shapes of organic molecules to identify formations most suitable for becoming organic solar cells that may emerge as alternative sources of energy. And FightAIDS@Home was launched in 2005 and enlisted individual computers to collectively scan chemical compounds to find new drugs against HIV; it’s 90% complete. The Ebola project, which debuted on the grid the first week of December, completed in one week what it would have taken a PC with a single processor about 35 years to accomplish.

“My biologists cannot look at a million compounds, for one, and even if they could, we couldn’t afford to buy them all. And even if we could, there just isn’t enough time to screen them all,” says Erica Ollmann Saphire from the Scripps Research Institute who is scanning chemical databases for possible Ebola therapies.

Saphire has two Ebola-related projects that she’s hoping the network of devices out there will solve. In 2013, she and her team discovered that the wily Ebola virus actually existed in three different structural forms during its life cycle, changing from a holiday wreath structure to a zig-zagging matrix to a butterfly-like shape, each uniquely designed to optimize its journey from budding new virus to finding cells to infect and finally invading those cells. “It’s like having thread that can be yoga pants in the morning, unraveled and reknitted into a shirt for work, then unraveled and reknitted into slippers for the evening when you go home,” says Saphire.

But understanding how these three complex structures form, and what signals them to materialize at specific times, is a “really complex computational problem,” she says. “The level of complexity of the three entirely different structures is each so big that you can’t even say it might take hundreds of years for a computer to accomplish; it would just be impossible to accomplish since there are just too many atoms and too many variables,“ says Saphire.

But with thousands of people chipping away at a small part of the problem, the large, complex, nearly impossible problem becomes potentially manageable. At least that’s what Saphire and the scientists at IBM are hoping.

And people like McCaskill are happy to do their part. Has the heavy lifting for science put a dent in his computing power? Not at all, he says. Cyber security hasn’t been a concern since IBM monitors the grid and ensures that any private information on PCs isn’t accessed or downloaded. And his daughter hasn’t complained about the grid draining her battery power, since the Kindle is set up to do most of its computing while the device recharges at night.

“You don’t have to be in Silicon Valley, or some megalopolis, you can be in an area like we are, and be doing creative stuff and cutting edge research,” McCaskill says.

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