Most people are aware that it was World AIDS Day last Thursday. World AIDS Day on 1 December brings together people from around the world to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS and demonstrate international solidarity in the face of the pandemic. The day is an opportunity for public and private partners to spread awareness about the status of the pandemic and encourage progress in HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment and care in high prevalence countries and around the world.
Between 2011-2015, World AIDS Days will have the theme of “Getting to zero: zero new HIV infections. Zero discrimination. Zero AIDS related deaths”. The World AIDS Campaign focus on “Zero AIDS related deaths” signifies a push towards greater access to treatment for all; a call for governments to act now. It is a call to honor promises like the Abuja declaration and for African governments to at least hit targets for domestic spending on health and HIV.
Given that this was the theme of the week, I decided to go and research the various ways in which technology is being used to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS and tackle the virus. I stumbled upon many interesting ways in which technology is being used in the fight agianst HIV/AIDS, from using mobile games to sending millions of free text messages a day to push people to be tested and treated. Below are links to some of the interesting articles I found:
- HIV/AIDS and mobile technology: sms saving lives in Africa
- Texts tackle HIV in South Africa
- Mobile technology battles HIV
- Fighting HIV/AIDS by using mobile phone games
Upon further research I discovered a very innovative way in which technology has helped the cause. Video-game players have solved a molecular puzzle that stumped scientists for years, and those scientists say the accomplishment could point the way to crowdsourced cures for AIDS and other diseases.
The feat, which was accomplished using a collaborative online game called Foldit, is also one giant leap for citizen science — a burgeoning field that enlists Internet users to look for alien planets, decipher ancient texts and do other scientific tasks that sheer computer power can’t accomplish as easily. The University of Washington’s Foldit program lets puzzle-lovers solve complex protein-folding problems online.
“People have spatial reasoning skills, something computers are not yet good at,” Seth Cooper, a University of Washington computer scientist who is Foldit’s lead designer and developer, explained in a news release. “Games provide a framework for bringing together the strengths of computers and humans.”
For more than a decade, an international team of scientists has been trying to figure out the detailed molecular structure of a protein-cutting enzyme from an AIDS-like virus found in rhesus monkeys. Such enzymes, known as retroviral proteases, play a key role in the virus’ spread — and if medical researchers can figure out their structure, they could conceivably design drugs to stop the virus in its tracks.
The problem is that enzymes are extremely tough to crack. There are millions of ways that the bonds between the atoms in the enzyme’s molecules could twist and turn. To design the right chemical key, you have to figure out the most efficient, lowest-energy configuration for the molecule — the one that Mother Nature herself came up with.
That’s where Foldit plays a role. The game is designed so that players can manipulate virtual molecular structures that look like multicolored, curled-up Tinkertoy sets. The virtual molecules follow the same chemical rules that are obeyed by real molecules. When someone playing the game comes up with a more elegant structure that reflects a lower energy state for the molecule, his or her score goes up. If the structure requires more energy to maintain, or if it doesn’t reflect real-life chemistry, then the score is lower.
More than 236,000 players have registered for the game since its debut in 2008.
The critical role of Foldit players in the solution of the (enzyme) structure shows the power of online games to channel human intuition and three-dimensional pattern-matching skills to solve challenging scientific problems.
The best part about this news may be that there’s more to come. The University of Washington team said they have two more papers in the pipeline, one regarding the algorithms in Foldit recipes and one regarding a brand-new synthetic protein, which was discovered through Foldit designs. Other teams may be able to tap these gamers’ creativity, leading to who knows what kind of new treatments and cures.