Researchers are calling on citizen scientists to play a free online game called Foldit, in which they help design and identify proteins that may be able to bind to and neutralize the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein that it uses to invade host cells. The scientists hope that players’ creations will yield insights that will allow them to create an effective antiviral therapy for COVID-19. Other researchers are asking citizens for help in a more passive way. The Scientist spoke with Brian Koepnick, who works on Foldit at the University of Washington Institute for Protein Design, about this project.
The Scientist: What is Foldit? How does it work?
Brian Koepnick: Foldit is a free, online game that anyone in the world can download and run on their Mac, Linux, or Windows PC. The main drive of Foldit is our science puzzles. These are weekly challenges that we refresh every week . . . that are directly related to research we’re doing here in the lab at the Institute for Protein Design or in our other labs. Foldit players can participate in the science puzzles. . . [which] are constructed in such a way that competing players who develop high-scoring solutions make meaningful research contributions.
TS: What kinds of meaningful contributions can players make?
BK: Citizen scientists can design proteins that fold up, and they can design it from scratch. There are number of these problems where we would like to create a new molecule, a new protein that’s never existed before, that could perform some kind of function. The highest-profile one right now being the coronavirus antiviral design that we’re doing at Foldit. So for this coronavirus puzzle, we’d like to design a new protein that could bind to the coronavirus-like [spike] protein and prevent recognition and infection of human cells like coronavirus.
TS: Scientists already have some drugs in clinical trials for coronavirus. Is it too late for Foldit to be helpful for this outbreak?
BK: This is definitely long-term. The Foldit puzzles are the first step in drug discovery. So anything discovered by Foldit players in these puzzles still has to undergo more rigorous testing in animals and humans. And of course, that takes time. There are things in trials right now for coronavirus, and with any luck . . . those will become available very soon. But until there is something on the market, I think we will continue to pursue all available options for coronavirus therapeutics.
TS: So if something else makes it to market first, you’ll stop using Foldit to research proteins that can bind to SARS-COV2?
BK: There are still things we can gain from pursuing a project like this. In particular, we would like to be prepared for the next pandemic. If we can iron out all the kinks in this approach early-on then we can be more prepared the next time.
This field of protein design is still very much a new field, especially the citizen science aspect of it—crowdsourcing it to nonexperts. So just the experience that we get from working on a problem like this is great. The other huge benefit of Foldit and puzzles like this is simply engagement with the public. This is a way for the public to learn more about coronavirus and the biology behind it—why vaccine design or therapeutic design is difficult. And for them to help . . . for them to actually contribute. Even if there were a complete “cure-all” that came out on the market tomorrow for a dollar a pop, I think we would still keep challenging all the players to work against coronavirus.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for brevity.
Emma Yasinski is a Florida-based freelance reporter. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaYas24.