How you can help research to combat COVID-19
If you’re washing your hands properly and following the official advice about social distancing and self-isolation in your region, you can rest assured you’re doing more than your bit in the fight against COVID–19, the virus which is the cause of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
But if you thought that was the extent to which you could help fight the disease, it might be time to think again. The scientific research project Folding@home is calling on people to download and install its desktop app, which uses the spare computer processing resources of people’s home and work computers around the world to help with its research.
COVID–19 is just the latest target of Folding@home, which uses these distributed computing resources to simulate protein folding, the complex process by which proteins gain their real-world three-dimensional form. It’s typically this 3D form that determines which of the many possible functions the protein will perform, such as becoming hair or breaking down food.
“Our specialty is in using computer simulations to understand proteins’ moving parts,” a recent Folding@home statement explains. “Watching how the atoms in a protein move relative to one another is important because it captures valuable information that is inaccessible by any other means.”
The idea is to identify causes of misfolding, when proteins form abnormally with potential disruption to the functioning of the human body. “Each simulation you run is like buying a lottery ticket,” Folding@home explains. “The more tickets we buy, the better our chances of hitting the jackpot.” It’s hoped these insights could lead to therapies for a number of diseases. Folding@home has been used in research related to Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease, cancers, influenza and HIV.
A recent (as-yet unpublished) paper from Folding@home researchers identified a possible avenue for Ebola virus research that was previously thought to have been closed.
Unsurprisingly, Folding@home’s latest mission, and top priority, is to simulate COVID–19 proteins. By default, new installations of the app will run simulations related to COVID–19 as a priority, though other simulations may also be run.
How to help
Contributing to the research is simply a case of downloading and installing Folding@home. The bundled controllers and viewers can look a little daunting, but rest assured that simply installing the app is all you need to start contributing. Later, you can create a username, or contribute your research to a team score (belonging to your workplace, or favorite gaming community, for example).
There has been a recent surge in downloads so for the time being, there aren’t always COVID-19 simulations to run. But it shouldn’t be very long before your computer starts contributing. Don’t be surprised if your computer’s fan whirs to life when it does. “These calculations are enormous and every little bit helps,” Folding@home explains.
Folding@home is led by Dr. Greg Bowman of Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine. The Folding@home Consortium includes labs at Washing University in St. Louis, Memorial Sloan-Ketting Cancer Center and Temple University, and beyond. It also relies on the work of citizen scientists and other volunteers.