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How a puzzle game could help scientists find a coronavirus cure

In 2016, gamers helped find the structure of a protein that could help plaque formation, which is an important area of Alzheimer’s research. Now, the creators of the game, Foldit, are hoping citizen scientists will turn their talents to COVID-19, the novel coronavirus. “We are interested in designing an antiviral drug that could be used directly to slow or halt infection from coronavirus,” Dr. Brian Koepnick, a research scientist at the Institute for Protein Design (IPD), told Digital Trends.

The new puzzle game is aimed at building a protein that can block the virus from infecting human cells. Researchers have already found the structure of the coronavirus spike protein, which the virus uses to bind to human cell receptors.

“Once we know the structure of the coronavirus, that’s our target,” said Koepnick. “So we can we can start to design molecules against that target.” With Foldit, players design proteins that stick to the coronavirus, thereby blocking its ability to infect more human cells.

To play, anyone can download and run the new coronavirus puzzle. The site has had some server issues as people rushed to participate, but they’re up and running again. In the game, you’ll get a 3D structure. Even if you don’t know much about biology, all you really need to understand is that you’re folding proteins. “One way to think about it in a totally abstract term is, it’s a little bit like being presented with a lock and being asked to come up with the key,” said Koepnick.

Foldit Puzzle Game for Conronavirus
Image used with permission by copyright holder

You’ll focus on designing a protein that attaches to the binding site’s “sidechains.” This is where the spike protein meets the human receptor protein. Not only will your protein have to fit with the sidechain, you’ll need to design its secondary structure and core so they fold up correctly. “There are many ways that that key could be shaped, so we’re really relying on the creativity of these players, who don’t need to know a lot about the science,” Koepnick said.

Foldit debuted in 2008, the creation of the University of Washington’s Center for Game Science. It had an early victory in 2011, when players helped discover the molecular structure of retroviral proteases enzyme M-PMV, which has a major role in the development of a virus similar to HIV. It took participants just 10 days to solve a puzzle that had eluded scientists for a decade.

For beginners, there’s a tutorial where you adapt an existing protein to the coronavirus. In the advanced version, players begin designing their own proteins. To know if you’re doing well, all you need to do is pay attention to your score. Researchers at the IPD will be watching, as wel.. They could possibly start developing a vaccine based on a protein designed in the game. They’ll mix the new proteins with coronavirus to see if they actually bind and those that do could be developed into antiviral drugs that would then need to go through testing in animals and humans. In other words, it’s still a long way off.

“This is the very first step in drug development,” said Koepnick.

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Jenny McGrath
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Jenny McGrath is a senior writer at Digital Trends covering the intersection of tech and the arts and the environment. Before…
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