South Florida Hospital News
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December 2011 - Volume 8 - Issue 6


Gamers Help Scientists with Breakthrough Discovery in HIV Research

The human immunodeficiency virus and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, better known, respectively, as HIV and AIDS, have plagued humanity for many years. Recently, however, researchers have made great strides in figuring out a solution to these illnesses with the help of some unlikely allies.
Players of the online puzzle game Foldit have discovered the structure of a protein used by the Mason-Pfizer monkey virus, or M-PMV, to multiply. This discovery could lead to the development of drugs to fight HIV and other similar viruses.
Foldit is a puzzle game developed by the Center for Game Science at the University of Washington and the UW Department of Biochemistry in 2009. The object of the game is to twist, turn and fold proteins into their correct shapes.
Anyone can download the game and play. People from all over the world compete and cooperate, working to not only get the highest score, but also to help researchers combat diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s, according to the Foldit website.
The developers of the game believed that human ingenuity and reasoning could help solve problems that computers could not. Their faith would not go unrewarded.
In September 2011, only weeks after they had been introduced to the problem, players of Foldit solved a puzzle that had stumped researchers for 15 years. They discovered the structure of a protein that M-PMV, a virus that causes AIDS in apes and monkeys, uses to multiply, according to the Foldit website.
M-PMV shares characteristics with HIV, meaning that this discovery could aid in the creation of drugs to fight these and other retroviruses, according to researchers at UW. A retrovirus is a virus that inserts a DNA copy of its genome, which is its complete set of genetic material, into a host cell to replicate and multiply.
The research team at UW is currently working on at least two papers based on the game’s success, and many people are warming up to the idea of exploring gaming-inspired science.
“I’m definitely in favor of the idea of using games for learning,” said Matthew Baltzell, a materials engineering major at Auburn University and a Foldit player. “Many people learn better with a hands-on approach, and educational games do offer that.”
Foldit has been praised by many since this breakthrough, but some believe that the game has its faults. Alicia Escudero, a Foldit player from Puerto Rico, believes there’s room for improvement.
“It’s a wonderful idea to have a game like this, don’t get me wrong, but the fudgy controls will make people quickly give up on it,” she said. “And it won’t reach its intended use, which is to have lots of people tinker with it.”
Baltzell agreed that the controls could be better.
“While I personally thought that Foldit was a bit unintuitive in gameplay at times, it was still an interesting concept,” he said.
Escudero was quick to offer a solution, however.
 “Something like this for a smartphone or an iPad, where it’s easier to maneuver in three dimensions, would be awesome,” she said.
It is unknown if the Foldit developers plan on bringing the game to platforms besides the computer. The game is currently in beta testing, according to the Foldit website, meaning that it is still being updated and worked on while the development team receives feedback from the players.
Despite this discovery, much work remains for professionals like Dr. Ayesha Mirza, the medical director at the University of Florida Center for HIV/AIDS Research, Education and Service in Jacksonville, FL.
“We still have a ways to go,” Mirza said. “Part of the problem is that there are so many different things that we need to consider: the diversity of the HIV virus, the fact that it establishes reservoirs in cells.”
The Center for HIV/AIDS Research provides clinical treatment for those suffering from HIV and AIDS, primarily women and children, and works to help prevent infections before they begin. The Center also takes part in several studies and clinical trials.
“We make sure that people get tested and get their medications,” Mirza said. “We have highly effective therapies.”
Detecting the virus early is crucial to staying healthy, as typically only one out of every four infected people know that they have the virus, according to Mirza.
With the discovery of the protein structure still fresh, neither Foldit players nor scientists at UW are slowing down. UW researchers have teamed up with Foldit playing groups such as the Foldit Contenders Group to model the crystal structure of the protein responsible for the growth of viruses.
Escudero plans on continuing to play the puzzle game and agrees with the ingenuity behind the concept of it.
“If the idea is to get a lot of people working without realizing it,” she said, “a game is the smartest way to do it.”
Baltzell is unsure if he will continue, but what he is sure of is that the future of gaming as a tool for scientific and educational progress is a bright one.
“When I heard about the HIV protein being discovered, admittedly, while I was pleased to hear it, it wouldn’t have been as noteworthy if not for the method it was discovered with,” he said. “That, I believe, speaks volumes for this method of learning and research.”
Alexander Medina, a journalism major at the University of Florida, can be reached at
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