January 14, 2014 4:06 am JST

Japanese researchers building supercomputer for drug development

TOKYO -- The government-backed Riken research institute is working on a supercomputer that will help drug developers analyze proteins and will be the most powerful of its kind anywhere when it goes online later this year.

     Riken has already finished work on the basic design and underlying technology. The machine will be able to model protein structure changes in just one day -- roughly 100 times as fast as the famed K computer, which is Japan's mightiest, albeit less specialized.

     Hitachi helped develop technology for the project, which is estimated to cost around 800 million yen ($7.55 million). The machine, about the size of four bookcases, will be housed at Riken's Advanced Institute for Computational Science in Kobe.

     Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seeks to make medicine and health care a pillar of his pro-growth policies. Riken plans to let Japanese universities and pharmaceutical companies use the new computer, giving them a competitive leg up in drug research and development.

     As advances in biotechnology become a major driving force behind the development of cancer therapies, the key to success increasingly lies in how quickly researchers can grasp the complex structures of proteins implicated in disease. Leading American and European pharmaceutical firms are actively using supercomputers in the field.

     While no global rankings exist for machines dedicated to this kind of specialized work, Riken says the new computer will be faster than the most powerful drug research supercomputer in the U.S.