October 5, 2011

Could a computer game help cure AIDS?

Scientists developed an online game to crowd-source medical research.

Online gamers recently facilitated a significant breakthrough in medical research and helped solve a problem that has stumped researchers and computers for years.

Researchers at the University of Washington built a puzzle-like game called Foldit that challenges players to create protein models one small piece at a time. Players earn points by accurately folding amino acids into complex multi-dimensional protein structures.

Tens of thousands of computer users have played Foldit and contributed to improved game play via the site’s message boards, and the combined effort contributed to breakthroughs in a number of areas of disease research, including HIV/AIDS, cancer, and Alzheimer's disease. Solving the protein puzzles could also contribute to advancements in biofuel development, researchers say.

Scientists built the game after computer programs designed for the task failed to construct accurate models. The three-dimensional structures were simply too complex for computers to simulate.

Researchers describe basic game play as consisting of “challenging structure refinement problems” and say that players’ puzzle-solving skills beat computers because humans are able to use creativity to develop new strategies and are better at solving three-dimensional problems than current computer algorithms.

The success of crowd-sourced problem solving may open the door for other computational problems to be solved online, potentially speeding up other scientific breakthroughs.

The research team that developed Foldit received a multi-million dollar grant this year from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and they are establishing a research centre devoted to applying gaming principles to scientific research projects.

What do you think? When will a project like this have a real impact on the pharmaceutical industry and disease patients?

These are some of the photos featured in this episode of The Stream.