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What if you could play a video game that helps find a cure for cancer?

How Foldit turns anyone into a biochemist
Researcher Brian Koepnik explains how players like Susan Kleinfelter help design new proteins.

What if you could play a video game and at the same time discover a cure for cancer?

It would certainly justify all that time spent on the couch.

It may sound farfetched, but it could happen, according to a team of researchers that included professors from Northeastern University and University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

Citizen scientists, playing a special video game called Foldit, have been able to successfully design synthetic proteins. The research team, led by the Institute for Protein Design at the University of Washington School of Medicine, published its results Wednesday in the journal Nature.

“We have demonstrated that non-expert citizen scientists, playing the online computer game Foldit, can accurately design completely new protein structures from scratch,” the researchers said in the study.


“The diversity of molecules that these gamers came up with is astonishing,” lead author Brian Koepnick, a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Protein Design, said in a statement from the University of Washington. “These new proteins are by no means inferior to the stuff a PhD-level scientist might make.”

Proteins are large, complicated molecules made up of hundreds or thousands of smaller units called amino acids, which are attached to each other in long chains and fold up into different shapes. Proteins play many critical roles in the body.

Proteins have evolved over billions and billions of years, “but now we face new problems that we’d like to be able to solve,” Koepnick said in a video distributed by the university. “We don’t want to wait billions of years for nature to evolve proteins.”

Researchers say it’s possible a novel protein could one day become a blockbuster drug to cure cancer or infectious diseases, among other uses.

A free online computer game, Foldit was created in 2008 as a way to “gamify” protein research. Until now, Foldit players were only able to interact with existing proteins, not design new ones. They had helped determine the structure of an HIV-related protein and improved the activity of useful enzymes, the university said.


“Designing completely new proteins that didn’t exist in nature has been our goal with Foldit for a long time,” senior coauthor Seth Cooper, assistant professor in the Khoury College of Computer Sciences at Northeastern University, said in a statement. “This new set of results shows that it’s possible.”

Senior coauthor Firas Khatib, assistant professor of computer science at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, said in the statement, “We didn’t give [Foldit players] any lectures or tell them to read anything. Instead, we tweaked the code that has run the game over many years.”

“I never would have believed they would get that good, but Foldit players never cease to amaze us,” Khatib said.

Foldit player Susan Kleinfelter said in the university video, “I had been playing some other games and wasn’t finding them very satisfying. . . . This is a game that does real science and that added interest really hooked me.”

Learn more about Foldit here.