New AIDS Drug Designed by Gamers

Enzymes are present in the body and are responsible for a large number of important functions. They can be envisioned as long, long spaghetti noodles – amino acids (proteins) joined end to end to form long strands. However, it’s the three dimensional shape of the enzyme (the way the spaghetti noodle coils up on the plate) that determines its function in the body. Trying to decipher that shape and “what it means” in terms of body chemistry is an incredibly hard job, because the enzymes are so long. They can fold in all manner of ways. Even today’s supercomputers grind to a halt trying to determine all the different ways that proteins can fold, and trying to determine what a particular folding pattern means for human health is a daunting task.

One particular enzyme had been vexing researchers for a while. It was an enzyme from an AIDS-like virus, and they just didn’t have the manpower nor the computer power to make sense of all the different folding patterns. So, researchers at the University of Washington took a rather unusual step, for scientists. They turned to young players of video games. They designed a game called “Foldit”, and released it for free. The game became an instant hit, attracting thousands of players. The goal of the game is to manipulate blocks and other three dimensional shapes in 3-D, gaining points for what the game judged to be a “favorable interaction” (something proteins are known to do) and losing points for making changes to the fold that would result in a less stable protein structure.

While this may all seem just fun and games, it most certainly is not. Determining the shape and misshape of proteins can lead to cures for Alzheimer’s, cancers, autoimmune disorders, and a host of other ailments. The Foldit game has already borne fruit: a new anti-AIDS protease medication was developed using the efforts of the young video game players who were simply having fun playing a game. This type of “crowd sourcing” is very powerful as it uses the creative energy and enthusiasm of young people and allows them to make a true difference in the world, with all the wonderful trickle-down effects on self-esteem and pride that come along with that.

The source of this article can be found at: Firas Khatib, et al. “Crystal structure of a monomeric retroviral protease solved by protein folding game players”. Nature Structural & Molecular Biology,2001. DOI: 10.1038/nsmb.2119

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