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How scientists are crowdsourcing a coronavirus treatment

This online puzzle game illustrates the power of citizen science.

How scientists are crowdsourcing a coronavirus treatment

Coronavirus, which the World Health Organization has now officially labeled a pandemic, is taking a toll on communities around the world. There’s currently no cure for COVID-19, but scientists are working on drugs that could help slow its spread. Fortunately, citizens can get involved in the process.

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Coronavirus, as seen in the game. [Image: courtesy Fold.it]

Foldit is an online video game that challenges players to fold various proteins into shapes where they are stable. Generally, folding proteins allows scientists (and citizens) to design new proteins from scratch, but in the case of coronavirus, Foldit players are trying to design the drugs to combat it. “Coronavirus has a ‘spike’ protein that it uses to recognize human cells,” says Brian Koepnick, a biochemist and researcher with the University of Washington’s Institute for Protein Design who has been using Foldit for protein research for six years. “Foldit players are designing new protein drugs that can bind to the COVID spike and block this recognition, [which could] potentially stop the virus from infecting more cells in an individual who has already been exposed to the virus.”

First released in 2008, Foldit grew out of an experimental research project developed by the University of Washington’s Center for Game Science along with the Department of Biochemistry. Foldit’s “coronavirus puzzle” is the game’s 1,808th ever. Players—who can work alone or in teams—are using the game’s puzzle system to develop new protein structures that can be tested by biochemists in the lab for use in antiviral drugs.

[Image: courtesy Fold.it]

“In Foldit, you change the shape of a protein model to optimize your score. This score is actually a sophisticated calculation of the fold’s potential energy,” says Koepnick, adding that professional researchers use an identical score function in their work. “The coronavirus puzzles are set up such that high-scoring models have a better chance of actually binding to the target spike protein.” Ultimately, high-scoring solutions are analyzed by researchers and considered for real-world use.

Since its inception, over half a million people have created accounts and played Foldit, and over 2,500 players have worked on the game’s coronavirus puzzles so far.

[Image: courtesy Fold.it]
Seth Cooper, the game’s lead designer and an assistant professor at Northeastern’s Khoury College of Computer Sciences, says Foldit was created because the design team figured that people could come up with better solutions than the computer could, and that it’d be helpful for people to interact with the 3-D compositions of protein structures to truly understand how they function.

Though these online puzzles weren’t designed to necessarily address a steadily growing virus such as COVID-19, it’s become an efficient way to conduct research on the disease safely, at home. “I think it’s really exciting to be able to potentially help out with something like this. . . . It’s the kind of thing I think we would have hoped to be able to do [when we started out],” Cooper says.

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In the past, Foldit players have puzzled together successful synthetic and natural protein structures—such as ones that helped solve the Mason-Pfizer monkey virus in 2011. Some of the players who are very good at Foldit don’t have backgrounds in biochemistry, but the beauty of the game’s design is that it makes science accessible to laypeople, and it ultimately ends up teaching nonprofessionals a lot. (A handful of Foldit players were credited as authors in a paper Cooper and his colleagues published recently.)

According to Cooper, this solution-based crowdsourcing project “is a way to put video games toward a good purpose. When people are playing games, they’re solving problems anyway, so it’s nice to apply that brainpower to solving problems in the real world.”

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