Long-time readers will remember our coverage of a little game called Foldit that was released by David Baker and his colleagues at the University of Washington in 2009. In this game, available online, gamers compete to find the most elegant, energy-efficient way of folding proteins; in fact, the game hews to the laws of physics, and the proteins that gamers fold can potentially exist in nature. The whole things smacks of a classic puzzle game, but there's a significant twist going on here.
Researchers have used Foldit to render images of proteins that are vital in understanding Alzheimer's, some cancers, and now HIV. With so many aspects of molecular biology dominated by computers, it may come as a bit of a surprise that researchers decided to call on the help of video gamers who don't necessarily have any kind of knowledge of the field, but as it turns out, computers lag far behind humans when it comes to three-dimensional thinking and spatial reasoning. In fact, there are myriad ways in which a given protein's atoms could bind together, twisting the protein into millions of different combinations; the trick is to find a low-energy combination that twists just the right way to act like the real protein does, and that's where the game comes in. Foldit rewards players for finding low-energy configurations, and the site tracks players' scores.
So what is it gamers have done to help halt HIV, as the headline states? They've found the configuration of a protein that is vital in the reproduction of HIV - specifically, of a strain that infects rhesus monkeys. What this means is that researchers will be able to start testing whether or not effective treatments can be found that target this protein, and therefore slow down or even prevent HIV from multiplying. This is gigantic news, as HIV is a frustratingly adaptable virus that has thus far proven impermeable, resistant, or otherwise resilient to the various vaccines and treatments that have been designed to target it. Researchers have spent decades looking for the virus' Achilles heel, and the decoding of this protein's structure gives them a target on which to train their sights. Should treatments based on this protein prove effective, they can be adapted for human trial. Hoping for a cure for HIV is setting one's hopes spectacularly high, but the possibility that such treatments could be used to slow the reproduction of HIV could help reduce the viral load of people living with the virus, and this would be a life-saving breakthrough - and much more down-to-Earth. As it stands, most people living with HIV help control the amount of the virus in them (their "viral load") through living healthfully, but this is not a perfect solution. Combining living well with a treatment that slows the reproduction of the virus could help prevent patients' viral loads from reaching the stage at which they develop AIDS, and it could help people living with AIDS reduce their viral load to a point at which they could discontinue taking AIDS meds, which are designed to reduce viral load but are renowned for side-effects that can drastically impare quality-of-life, and other aspects of patients' health.
This news points to what may be a very promising future, but regardless of whether this avenue of attack works in the fight against HIV/AIDS, the possibility of Foldit and the ingenuity of gamers to aid researchers in the battle against such horrifying diseases as HIV, cancer, and Alzheimer's has been proven. If nothing else, that is a victory worth celebrating.
For those of you with a keener interest in HIV/AIDS and/or molecular biology, the full article can be found here and is published in the journal Nature Structural and Molecular Biology.