One Up: Gamers Help Scientists Solve Molecular Puzzle That Could Lead To AIDS Vaccine

So, this isn’t exactly breaking news, but it’s so awesome that it’s worth sharing again in case you missed it. HIV/AIDS has killed some 25 million people worldwide and scientists have been working diligently since the virus was discovered in 1981 to find a cure. While a cure still eludes researchers, several protease inhibitors have been developed to slow its progress. But last week, HIV/AIDS research took a huge leap forward, thanks to the work of gamers. Yes, gamers.

About three years ago, a team of researchers at the University of Washington created a game called FoldIt to allow gamers to contribute to scientific research by playing with the shape and structure of proteins. Why proteins? Well, there are more than 100,000 kinds of protein in the human body, and understanding the structure and makeup of these proteins is key to understanding how they work and as well as to designing drugs that target them.

As proteins are found in the majority of diseases we suffer from, they are also key to developing cures, and so FoldIt enables gamers to design new proteins and fold known proteins into their most workable forms in an effort to contribute to disease prevention.

According to FoldIt’s website, “Foldit attempts to predict the structure of a protein by taking advantage of humans’ puzzle-solving intuitions and having people play competitively to fold the best proteins”.

And last week, FoldIt became more than just a cool idea, or an exercise for scientifically-minded gamers. Scientists have been attempting to decipher a protein called “retroviral protease” for over 15 years, as the protease is one of the key proteins that allows HIV to multiply and replicate itself in living cells. Using FoldIt, gamers were able to identify the structure of the protein — within a matter of 10 days.

With the structure of retroviral protease unlocked, scientists can now begin taking the necessary steps to build a drug that could significantly slow the speed at which HIV develops. The findings were initially published in a Nature article, which readers can find here.

“Following the failure of a wide range of attempts to solve the crystal structure of M-PMV retroviral protease by molecular replacement, we challenged players of the protein folding game Foldit to produce accurate models of the protein”, the University of Washington research team said in its findings. “Remarkably, Foldit players were able to generate models of sufficient quality for successful molecular replacement and subsequent structure determination. The refined structure provides new insights for the design of antiretroviral drugs”.

In this MSNBC report, the gamers describe the way in which they were able to work together cooperatively to solve a puzzle that has confounded scientists for more than a decade. And what’s so cool is that, while some of the most important progress in the game was made by those with biomedical academic backgrounds, the majority of active players playing with FoldIt did not have this kind of scientific background. Many of them were just average gamers like you and me.

“The monkey-virus puzzle solution demonstrates that Foldit and other science-oriented video games could be used to address a wide range of other scientific challenges — ranging from drug development to genetic engineering for future biofuels”, Firas Khatib, a biochemist at the University of Washington told MSNBC. “My hope is that scientists will see this research and give us more of those cases”.

What a remarkable win for the non-shallow end of gamification. We hear so much about how game layers are being added to consumer tech products to encourage engagement and interaction with products and apps, but with FoldIt, we have a real example of how gamification can help solve some of the trickiest of scientific problems and help make the world a better place.

Way to go, gamers.