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A new design method
Researchers at the Institute for Protein Design hope that one day, treatments for emerging diseases will be designed in weeks or months — by researchers using computer algorithms to design specific proteins. “The hope is we’ll have a very rapid pipeline one day, from disease threat to candidate treatment,” Mulligan said.
That comes back to the Foldit players. How important are they?
Even a small protein can fold into a tremendous number of different shapes, and knowing the structure of a protein is the key to understanding how it works. As it turns out, “humans can think in 3-D much more easily than computers can,” said Brian Koepnick, a graduate student at the Institute for Protein Design who worked on the Ebola puzzle.
Human Foldit players seem to be better than computers at finding things like virus hot spots, Koepnick said. And researchers may be able to teach those human strategies to computers, making protein-folding solutions even faster.
Vijay Pande, a professor of chemistry at Stanford University and director of the Pande Lab, is skeptical about the contribution of human gamers.
“In this particular case, it seems to me that computation (not gamers) would be more successful” at designing a drug, he said by e-mail.
His lab has used computational methods to recombine existing drugs into a potential Ebola treatment. Globavir Biosciences plans to develop the drug and seek approval for it.
The drug does not use human-designed proteins, and Pande said repurposed drugs are easier to make and administer: “From a drug-design perspective, there are numerous benefits to the repurposing drug strategy, especially when we need to move quickly.”