Thursday, May 20, 2010

Cure Cancer By Game Playing?

This is a bit novel: games with real-life purposes and applications. A team of biologists have created a game called Fold It (at the equally clever domain name

David Baker, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute researcher at the University of Washington, designed a game that uses human intuition about puzzle solving to help predict how proteins fold. Proteins are key players in both diseases and developing cures.

What big problems is this game tackling?

  • Protein structure prediction: As described above, knowing the structure of a protein is key to understanding how it works and to targeting it with drugs. A small proteins can consist of 100 amino acids, while some human proteins can be huge (1000 amino acids). The number of different ways even a small protein can fold is astronomical because there are so many degrees of freedom. Figuring out which of the many, many possible structures is the best one is regarded as one of the hardest problems in biology today and current methods take a lot of money and time, even for computers. Foldit attempts to predict the structure of a protein by taking advantage of humans' puzzle-solving intuitions and having people play competitively to fold the best proteins.
  • Protein design: Since proteins are part of so many diseases, they can also be part of the cure. Players can design brand new proteins that could help prevent or treat important diseases.
A human protein (+) Enlarge This Image

How does my game playing contribute to curing diseases?

With all the things proteins do to keep our bodies functioning and healthy, they can be involved in disease in many different ways. The more we know about how certain proteins fold, the better new proteins we can design to combat the disease-related proteins and cure the diseases.

I suppose it is a little like SETI@home in that it is using voluntary distributed processing to work on difficult problems, but unlike SETI, this might have more practical applications closer to home.

Supposedly all the resultant work will be in the public domain and not just the intellectual property of some mega-biotech firm, but time will tell. One guy has already folded a protein that might be a good anti-influenza form.

One of the troubling aspects of all the research that is getting done these days is the lack of ethics and moral restraint accompanying it. (Yes, I know that ethics can mean whatever you want it to depending on your starting point, but in this case I mean Judeo-Christian/natural law type ethics). "Science" is running far ahead of its ability to keep a moral framework around it.

Case in point: a friend of mine says he rarely contributes to fundraisers and Walk/Run/Race for the X cure, because the money raised to "find a cure" frequently turns into "a genetic test for X abnormality in utero and subsequent abortion". Instead of curing the disease, they are preventing the disease from troubling society by preventing that person's birth.

This has apparently happened with organizations like the March Of Dimes, UNICEF, and the Komen Foundation.

As helpful as many [Down Syndrome] support organizations can be to parents of children with DS, some of the largest ones have abdicated any responsibility for reducing abortions of babies with birth defects. The March of Dimes, the National Down Syndrome Society, and the National Down Syndrome Congress all take a neutral stance on abortion, ostensibly because they don't want to judge or to tell anyone what to do.

However, a neutral stance on abortion is not a neutral policy. It implies that the killing of these innocents is in the best interests of society, and can therefore be justified. Instead, these organizations need to take a stand in defense of all babies with Down syndrome, born and unborn.

They could have an unparalleled influence on the current situation by putting a positive face on these unborn babies, whose humanity and inherent value to society shine through at the moment of birth. There is no telling how many precious lives could be saved if they did. [source]
These are all things to ponder and think about. In the meantime, you could solve a puzzle by Fold It.

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