Power of Play: Gamers Solve Molecular Protein Puzzle

In as fast as a few months, engineers can design computers that are thinner, faster, more durable and virus-resistant. Many medical researchers who presented at the annual TedMed conference held in Washington, DC, said they wish the same could be said about the human body.

"For our bodies and the medical world, we haven't seen the same speed in innovation as we have in computing," David Icke, CEO of the electronic systems company MC10, told the crowd at TedMed.

Certainly a medical degree has proven essential in diagnosing and treating diseases, but what if the key to some medical advances now lie in those who are armed not with a medical degree but with just a video game controller?  That's why engineers and researchers are throwing open the floor to, well, anyone really. That is, anyone willing to spend some time gaming.

Perhaps researchers have been looking too long at one equation that they can't see the answers quite like a pair of fresh eyes, suggested Seth Cooper, creative director at the center for game science at the University of Washington.

So Cooper and his colleagues created  Foldit, a computer game that allows gamers to compete against each other to design proteins and fold proteins in different shapes to replicate diseases. Gamers can also design new proteins that might eventually help prevent or treat diseases.

Within three weeks of joining a team and being handed a controller, Mimi, an avid gamer from England, and an online team dispatched worldwide, discovered what researchers have spent decades trying to find. In September, Mimi and her team - all average gamers and not medical researchers - replicated a protein structure from within a virus that causes AIDS in monkeys.

These findings helped researchers understand the structure of HIV in humans, said Cooper, and could help them develop therapies that will help block the enzymes that could cause the virus to spread.

And equally important, Cooper said, these findings all speak to the power of play.

"We're more willing to experiment with ideas when we're not worried about outcome," said Cooper.

Cooper and his colleagues started the project after finding that computer algorithms were not enough to create and reproduce protein folds that would help researchers understand exactly how diseases are formed.

"One of the key advances that humans have over computers is creativity," said Cooper.

But what would an average gamer know about protein folds and disease modeling? In the case of Mimi and her virtual teammates, apparently everything.

Cooper said there are more gaming challenges, this time for gamers to find ways to create protein structures to inhibit the flu virus.  Cooper said his team hopes these additional challenges will prompt more gamers to use their creativity to find more diseases and treatments.

"We can't really predict what's going to happen," said Cooper.