Scientists: Computer Game Could Help Cure Diseases

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In a new game called Foldit, players move computerized versions of proteins to give researchers new combinations to try as they seek to cure diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. David Greene talks to one of the creators of the game, Zoran Popovic, a professor at the University of Washington.

DAVID GREENE, host:

If you've ever played "Pac-Man" back in the day or you're hooked on "Madden Football" - like I am - well, you know, videogames can be fun, addictive, guilt-inducing. Imagine all the more productive things you could and should be doing. Well, guilt no more.

Scientists believe they have found a game that can actually help cure diseases, like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. It's called Foldit, and the game is not unlike Tetris, when you move different shaped blocks into place so they fit neatly. But what players here are actually moving are computerized versions of proteins, giving researchers new combinations to try in real life as they seek to cure illness.

We've brought in one of the creators of Foldit, University of Washington professor Zoran Popovic. And professor, welcome to the program.

Professor ZORAN POPOVIC (Co-creator, Foldit): Thanks for having me.

GREENE: So tell us what this game is really doing.

Prof. POPOVIC: This game is basically enticing huge number of people around the world to solve one of the deep scientific problems in biochemistry that pretty much has to do with the way the life functions. So what Foldit is trying to do is trying to merge computers and people together to solve a very hard, scientific problem that neither computers nor people alone can solve by themselves.

GREENE: Okay, so what your players are actually doing is, they're folding proteins on the computer. And what does that actually accomplish?

Prof. POPOVIC: They're predicting the actual structure that proteins can take in real life. And because structure is fundamental to how proteins interact and function and do things in real-life cells, whoever knows the structure of these proteins will know the secret of life.

GREENE: And so you're not just looking for biochemists out there or even computer scientists. I mean, you're just looking for people who have a lot of time to get addicted to something like this?

Prof. POPOVIC: That's exactly right. I mean, it's actually still not clear what kind of people are very good at this. I flew a huge number of them to Seattle to just - we call them protein savants. And even when I observe them directly as they're trying to solve problems, you know, they see stuff that I just don't see at all.

One of the early outcomes of this was that we realized that regular people playing all over the world are way better than biochemists at this.

GREENE: We actually installed Foldit on the computer we have here in the studio, and I wanted to just give it a try so we know what this sounds like.

(Soundbite of music)

GREENE: Some attention-grabbing music.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREENE: So I'm on a very basic level. And kind of tell me what I'm looking at. I have sort of a - something that looks like a narrow, folded piece of paper with some red and some tan. And then there's a smaller, blue string sticking off it.

Prof. POPOVIC: So basically, what you're seeing is just two amino acids connected together. The tape-y thing, the things that looks like a short piece of tape...

(Soundbite of computer game, Foldit)

Prof. POPOVIC: ...is the exact bone.

GREENE: Oh, something just happened.

Prof. POPOVIC: Right. So if you - all you're learning there is that you need to separate the amino acids so that they're not colliding. Once that happens, you've solved that level.

(Soundbite of computer game, Foldit)

GREENE: I think I just solved a level.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. POPOVIC: Yeah, that's you. That's the victory music.

GREENE: Congratulations. But I'm nowhere close to doing anything that would help you cure disease. I guess this is just teaching me the very basics.

Prof. POPOVIC: Well, this is the problem, right? We have to design these levels to basically teach people how to get from complete novice to an expert able to contribute to science. Since we get more than 300, 400 people every day, we actually observe how they do in levels and modify levels on a daily basis such that after people finish all the levels, they have all the information necessary to actually start going to the challenge levels - which are very big proteins that are actively being solved by our best protein folders.

GREENE: Before I let you go, professor, I just want to ask you about the players. You've met some of them; you've flown them in. I know you even had a 13-year-old from Virginia whose online handle is Cheese?

Prof. POPOVIC: Yeah, that's right. What's interesting is that Cheese and his family, instead of watching TV after dinner, you know, they together try to solve and compete on Foldit. So it's sort of a completely new pastime, and it's just very rewarding, as a scientist who's worked on this for several years, to find that this is finding a place into living rooms. And it's actually inspiring young kids towards science.

GREENE: Professor, thanks for joining us.

Prof. POPOVIC: Sure.

GREENE: University of Washington professor Zoran Popovic, one of the creators of the game Foldit.

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