Curing deadly diseases by doing nothing – an alternative use of crowdsourcing
What if I told you that you could help scientists in their search for a cure to diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and cancer? The first reaction would probably be „I don’t have any medical background or experience, how could I possibly do that?”. Then you might think of donations to certain organizations or NGOs, but in order to really make a difference in terms of research, the amount of money needed is somewhere in the millions. So how then can an average person, with no experience whatsoever in the medical field and with a budget that could never hope to match the needs of this endeavour, help in finding a cure for these diseases?
The short answer is… by doing nothing. The longer answer is… by doing very little. Puzzled? Don’t worry! The people over at Stanford University’s Pande Laboratory, alongisde Sony, Nvidia and ATI have created a software called Folding@home, which runs in the background of your computer and simulates different possible folding patters of proteins. According to medical textbooks, this folding process is the physical process by which a polypeptide folds into its characteristic and functional three-dimensional structure from random coil. What this actually translates into for you and me is that when proteins in our body fold properly, they can even work as defense mechanisms against disease. When they don’t, they can actually cause the abovementioned diseases. Clearly, if scientists manage to unlock the secrets of this process, it would be a great thing for us all.
Unfortunately, the process is not that simple. The huge numbers of possible permutations in the entire protein folding sequence make it extremely difficult for researchers to uncover the final solution, as it requires a huge amount of processing power. This is where normal people like us come into play. The Folding@home software mentioned earlier uses a complex algorithm to model possible folding patterns and transmits its results back to the center at Stanford.
The key features of the software are the following: firstly, it was developed in order to require as little input from the end user as possible. Once it is installed on your computer, it will never bother you again. It will simply run in the background and analyse various patterns. Secondly, it only uses spare processing resources. So if you’re pushing your computer to its limits with all types of things open, the software will simply pause its current task and resume it at a later time, when you’re watching a movie or just browsing the Internet. Think about it, all those hours everyday when your computer is turned on, even though you might not be using it(just think about leaving it turned on overnight), those hours can now be put to good use.
However, this isn’t the only software out there that used distributed computing in order to facilitate this research. One of the alternatives has already been discussed in this blog, and its name is Rosetta/Fold.it. So how is Folding@home different? Why wouldn’t everyone use the same software in order to ensure a unified approach to the problem? While the motivating factors for people are the same in both cases(love and glory), the implementation is different. Rosetta is designed as a game, and it requires people who are willing to participate to give a certain amount of their time into playing that game, time that not every person may have. In addition to that, it also requires them to be creative and think in a certain way, which reduces the available pool of people that can contribute. With Folding@home, these disadvantages don’t exist, because anyone can install a software on their computer and then move on, while the program goes about performing its tasks in the background. With Rosetta, the moment you stop playing the game, your input to the researchers stops.
If I haven’t convinced you yet, here’s a video that explains everything in a simple and ingenious way:
 – Alberts, B., Johnson, A., Lewis, J., Raff, M., Roberts, K., Walters, P. (2002). The Shape and Structure of Proteins. Molecular Biology of the Cell; Fourth Edition. New York and London: Garland Science