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UW researchers crowd-source coronavirus treatment research with video game

Researchers at the University of Washington are asking 'civilian scientists' to tweak and modify renderings of proteins in a search for treatment of the coronavirus.

SEATTLE — A University of Washington team is crowd-sourcing the search for potential treatments for novel coronavirus.

It’s a computer game called Foldit,  and it’s all about folding proteins. Users tweak and modify renderings of proteins – an incredibly complex three-dimensional puzzle. 

Their research has to do with the way the rapidly-spreading coronavirus behaves in the human body. Once the virus is introduced, proteins on its surface bind to proteins on human cells. When they connect, it infects you and can replicate.

“What Foldit players will be doing is trying to design a new protein that can block this binding event,” said research scientist Brian Koepnick of UW’s Institute for Protein Design.

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That essentially neutralizes the virus particle, Koepnick said, and finding a good match could lead to a targeted treatment - but it's not the same thing as a vaccine.

“This could be used as an antiviral drug, something you could administer that would slow down or halt infection of coronavirus,” he said.

Foldit is about 12 years old and was developed with the university’s Center for Game Science. Users solve all sorts of complex protein problems, though most are working on coronavirus since it was introduced, Koepnick said.

In 2014, they even worked on Ebola. There are thousands and thousands of registered users and hundreds of very active ones. Koepnick is excited to see what they come up with before the review on Friday.

“I am pretty optimistic,” he said. “The players, they’re good at coming up with novel solutions to problems, usually solutions we did not expect, but sometimes these solutions can be particularly effective.”

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The Institute for Protein Design will test some of the user's solutions in its lab to see if they bind correctly in the real-world. Any successful results would have to undergo a long testing process before possible medical use.

“This field is very new,” he said. “We’re still discovering what we can accomplish with protein design, and what we can accomplish with Foldit.”

But Koepnick said he’s glad to put solutions in the hands of the people – citizen scientists, that could be responsible for a new treatment coming not from a research lab, but a living room.

“It very much could,” he said.

Foldit is free to download, and available here.

What are coronavirus symptoms?

The symptoms of coronavirus are similar to the flu or colds. Symptoms include a runny nose, headache, cough, sore throat, fever and a general feeling of being unwell, according to the Washington State Department of Health.

The severity of symptoms ranges significantly. Some cases are very mild with symptoms similar to the common cold, and some cases are more like severe pneumonia that require hospitalization. Most deaths have been reported in older adults who had other health conditions, according to DOH.

Symptoms may appear as soon as two days after being exposed to the coronavirus or as long as 14 days.