Humanity needs heroes to battle COVID-19, the deadly virus ravaging every corner of the globe. Now, anyone with a computer – including you – can join the fight, thanks to a world-wide non-profit research effort called Folding@home.
What can you do to join the effort? It’s easy. Just allow your computer to crunch data for the cause while you continue using it like you normally would. All you have to do is download and execute the Folding@home software. The program runs in the background without needing your attention, including while your computer is idle. Your computer will work with hundreds of thousands of others to give researchers a model for how the tiny mechanisms in the virus function – and potentially identify weak spots for medical treatments to kill it.
“The idea is anyone can get involved and make a contribution,” said Dr. Greg Bowman, the project director. “The more computers, and the faster, the better. We see people working together to combat a shared enemy.”
Proteins are one of building blocks of life. Per Folding@home’s description, proteins sense the environment (such as taste and smell), perform work (such as muscle contraction and breaking down food), and play structural roles (such as your hair). Proteins also perform the functions in viruses that attack our immune system. Basically, proteins are what make the coronavirus dangerous.
Too small to observe under a microscope, the COVID-19 proteins function as machines, moving and performing. In order to develop antibodies or other treatments, researchers must first be able to model that movement and identify structural weaknesses where a tiny molecule in a drug can attach itself and attack the virus.
Finding those weaknesses, or “pockets” within the structures, requires analyzing slews of data generated by all of those tiny proteins as they cycle through motion. Folding@home taps into the combined calculation power of volunteers’ computers to narrow researchers’ attention to the most vulnerable and promising proteins.
“If we can narrow it down from a million molecules to hundreds that we can test, that will increase our chances of finding something,” Dr. Bowman said.
Coronavirus is only the latest disease in Folding@home’s sights.
Dr. Bowman, who teaches biochemistry and molecular biophysics at Washington University in St. Louis, said his former graduate mentor launched Folding@home at Stanford University labs in 2000. Since, volunteers around the world have helped research on cancer as well as about 10 diseases, including Alzheimer’s, Diabetes, and Parkinson’s.
The project and subsequent studies were conducted at Washington University, Temple University, and the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Labs in Illinois in the United States, as well as in Hong Kong and Sweden are planning to join the COVID-19 effort, Dr. Bowman said.
Among the findings that the nonprofit releases to the public are several potential breakthroughs in disease and antibiotic resistance research. For example, data crunched by volunteers led to identifying a theoretical pocket in Ebola proteins. The Folding labs then proved that the pocket existed, providing a location for a drug to perhaps shut down its moving parts. Researchers are now searching for a small molecule to attack that weakness.
“That one is particularly cool, science-wise, because people didn’t think there was a viable way to target this protein,” Dr. Bowman said. “The combination of prediction and experimental confirmation is really exciting.”
Dr. Bowman’s passion for disease research is fueled in part from his own vision loss, which started degenerating when he was 8 or 9 and left him legally blind within a year. A medical breakthrough could have preserved eyesight for him and for all of the other kids suffering from the same condition. That adds a little juice to an already worthy cause.
“I joke with people that I’m used to working with things I can’t see well, so in some sense I have an advantage working with these extremely small molecules that nobody can see,” he said.
When the pandemic struck, Folding@home was ready to pounce because it was already a massive operation.
More than 30,000 volunteers and their computers were already contributing to the effort. The project encourages friendly competition by offering points based on how much data each volunteer crunched. Teams formed in the spirit of friendly competition to see who could most help the cause. Some volunteers wrote detailed analyses of how to maximize points earned per dollar spent on computer hardware. Several cryptocurrencies even support the project by awarding their digital currency to volunteers based on their point totals.
In the weeks since patients first started getting sick and dying from COVID-19, the Folding@home army rose to 700,000 volunteers hailing from every continent and even from tiny islands in the Philippines. Together, they’ve formed what Dr. Bowman says is the greatest supercomputer ever created. The project has crunched more than 1.5 exaflops of data – or more than 1,500,000,000,000,000 floating point operations per second.
“It’s estimated we have more compute power than the next 100 most powerful supercomputers,” Dr. Bowman said.
That’s a ton of people taking up the fight against Coronavirus.
And they may have already found a chink in its armor.
The first point of contact between COVID-19 and a human cell is a jagged complex of proteins decorating the surface of the virus. “The Spike,” as researchers have named it, initiates infection. Folding@home researchers now call this this formation the COVID-19 Demogorgon, after the Dungeons and Dragons monster made famous in the Netflix show “Stranger Things.”
The COVID-19 Demogorgon is aptly named for two reasons. The first is that the virus is terrifying and lethal. The second is because The Spike and the Demogorgon’s flower-like mouth open in a similar fashion: three components, arranged in a circle, open in tandem, revealing deadly teeth.
That opening could be how drugs attach to the virus and kill it.
Like the Demogorgon, the virus will be tough to slay, and much work must be done to understand its mechanics and develop drugs to exploit it. But the mouth of the Demogorgon is a starting point, and during a pandemic, that’s reason to celebrate.
“I was literally jumping up and down,” Dr. Bowman said. “This inspires hope we’ll be able to do something.”
You can help, too! To learn more, donate, or to join the Folding@home effort in the fight against COVID-19, visit: https://foldingathome.org/
Zach Kyle works at Crucial as a content author. He previously worked for 10 years as a reporter at several newspapers. He enjoys tacos, yard games and The Witcher 3.