COVID-19 Antiviral Drugs May Be Created with Free Video Game

Now that it’s apparent COVID-19 is a significant global threat—it currently has an estimated 3.4% mortality rate and has been diagnosed in 90,000 people worldwide as of March 3—experts, mainly from organizations like the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) or the World Health Organization (WHO), are doing everything in their power to stop it. But the effort to halt the virus that causes the horrendous disease may soon get a boost from an unexpected source: people participating in a free online video game.

Kotuku picked up on news of the effort, which is being undertaken by those involved with Foldit, “a revolutionary crowdsourcing computer game enabling you to contribute to important scientific research.” The game was developed as a part of an experimental research project between the University of Washington’s Center for Game Science and its Department of Biochemistry, and was first released back in 2008.

Foldit calls for players to “fold” proteins, which means, according to the game’s Wiki, “determining how a given protein’s… structure becomes a functioning three-dimensional structure.” While the general process of how proteins (large, complex biomolecules often referred to as “the building blocks of life” as they’re essential for bodily functions and the biochemical processes taking place in cells) are formed into three-dimensional structures is generally understood, predicting a given protein’s “functioning structure” still poses problems, especially because it is computationally demanding to simulate.

In regards to SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19 (recall that SARS-COV-2 belongs to the coronavirus family of viruses), Foldit players are being tasked with developing a “binder” protein to help negate its ability to infect human cells. At this point, researchers have been able to identify the structure of one of the “spike proteins” on the surface of SARS-COV-2 that allows it to infect human cells, but now Foldit wants to give players of the game an opportunity to design proteins that can bind to this spike protein, hopefully diminishing SARS-COV-2’s infection rate.

If Foldit players are able to fold a protein that diminishes SARS-COV-2’s ability to infect human cells, it may then be sent off to laboratories for testing, where it will be determined if it is safe for use by people. According to a Foldit YouTube video, the most promising designs will be manufactured and tested at the University of Washington Institute for Protein Design. Foldit emphasizes the fact that this would only be the first step in developing an antiviral drug that works on SARS-COV-2, however, and bringing one that is truly viable to market would take a lot more time.

COVID-19 Antiviral Drugs May Be Created with Free Video Game_1

A 3D print of the SARS-CoV-2 Spike Protein. NIAID 

For those who want to participate in the Foldit effort to develop proteins that bind against SARS-COV-2’s spike proteins, they can check out the protein’s “puzzle” page, and download the game, here.

What do you think about this gaming method for finding possible COVID-19 antiviral drugs? Do you think Foldit players will indeed design an effective protein that binds against SARS-COV-2’s spike proteins, or do you have a lot more faith in the abilities of institutions like the CDC and WHO? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

Feature image: CDC / Nicereddy