A very serious game that can cure the orphan diseases

by Andrew Oram

This was originally published on O’Reilly Media’s Strata blog, May 6, 2013.

In the inspiring tradition of Foldit, the game for determining protein shapes, Fit2Cure crowdsources the problem of finding drugs that can cure the many under-researched diseases of developing countries. Fit2Cure appeals to the player’s visual—even physical—sense of the world, and requires much less background knowledge than Foldit.

There about 7,000 rare diseases, fewer than 5% of which have cures. The number of people currently engaged in making drug discoveries is by no means adequate to study all these diseases. A recent gift to Harvard shows the importance that medical researchers attach to filling the gap. As an alternative approach, abstracting the drug discovery process into a game could empower thousands, if not millions, of people to contribute to this process and make discoveries in diseases that get little attention to scientists or pharmaceutical companies.

The biological concept behind Fit2Cure is that medicines have specific shapes that fit into the proteins of the victim’s biological structures like jig-saw puzzle pieces (but more rounded). Many cures require finding a drug that has the same jig-saw shape and can fit into the target protein molecule, thus preventing it from functioning normally.

But there are millions of possible medications, and it’s hard computationally to figure out which medication can disable which target protein. The way forward may be to tap the human ability to solve (and enjoy solving) jig-saw puzzles.

Fit2Cure therefore presents the user with the shape of the target protein (the common representation called the van der Waals surface) and the shape of a medication. The player can easily and quickly rotate the two molecules and search for pl.aces where they fit. The molecules can be rendered partly transparent to help the player see the internal shape he or she is trying to fit.

The game was developed by a team led by Geoffrey Siwo, a PhD student at University of Notre Dame and an IBM PhD scholarship award recipient. It is one of the efforts of Sayansia, which Siwo founded together with Ian Sander and Victoria Lam, also PhD students at the University of Notre Dame. Sayansia is derived from the Swahili word sayansi, which means science, and their motto is "Scientific discovery through gaming." The game development was done in conjunction with the serious games company DynamoidApps , based in Seattle, USA. To play the game, you need to download the Unity Web player.

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