Gamers Could Be The Best Hope For The World In The Fight Against Liver Cancer


Medical research is no joke; it involves hours of painstaking number crunching, trial and error, and a whole lot of educated guessing and luck.

But just sometimes, what you need is someone with absolutely no medical training to help you along. And that’s exactly what ‘Foldit’ is about. 

Streptococcal Protein Puzzle – Foldit

Scientists estimate that a significant number of liver cancer cases across the globe are caused by a carcinogen called aflatoxin. It’s naturally occurring, found in fungus that grows in foods like maize and grain, staples foods of developing countries. 

The World health Organisation has previously suggested a few precautions to take to prevent aflatoxin contamination, including planting certain crop, sun drying harvests, and even manually removing whatever is contaminated. Unfortunately, that’s also not so easy to implement everywhere with any consistency. 

Instead one food company, Mars Incorporated, has turned to other research methods, according to Fast Company. In partnership with UC Davis, the University of Washington, the Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa, and the Thermo Fisher Scientific, it’s hoping to find an enzyme capable of detecting and neutralising aflatoxin in crops, one which can be easily administered during the growing phase. Unfortunately, that enzyme isn’t so easy to find. But instead of gathering scientists and biotech experts, which would be extremely expensive for the size of the team required to make any measurable progress soon, the company is instead recruiting players of the game, Foldit.

Foldit was originally launched in 2008 by the University of Washington, as part of a then ongoing research project. It’s a complex puzzle game that involves folding protein structures to discover new enzymes, one of the hardest known problems in the field of biology. So, instead of having scientists repeatedly try and fail to discover this enzyme in expensive and time-consuming trials, they can instead recruit gamers to play the protein folding game, which could eventually reveal the enzyme they’re looking for much faster. 

Mason pfizer monkey virus – Foldit

It’s not even such a crazy idea considering what this particular gaming community has already achieved. As part of a similar project, the players of Foldit discovered an enzyme way back in 2011 that’s responsible for causing an AIDS-like disease in monkeys. It’s a problem that researchers had been working on for 13 years to no avail; the gamers were successful in just three short weeks.

So far, researchers have already identified an enzyme theoretically capable of breaking down aflatoxin. What they need however, is to modify the enzyme in such a way that it’s capable of binding to the toxin’s molecules, something it can’t do in its current state. That’s where Foldit’s players come in. Their task is to, in short, mess with the enzyme’s protein structure within the game until they’ve modified to a point where it can do this. The accurately rendered chemical component of the enzyme in the game can’t be changed, just the length and shape of it, so there’s no chance the right outcome wouldn’t work.

Not only is this a problem where a fresh perspective could come in handy, but the approximately 200,000-strong player base for the game means there are more sets of eyes on the problem than we could ever have scientists working on it. 

And once again, researchers are expecting Foldit to deliver results in a few weeks. After a few months, they can then test the strongest enzyme structures submitted and see which ones are the most effective. After that, it’s a short leap to production and administering the compound. All because a few people really like their puzzle games.

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