DARPA asks gamers to cure blood disease seen on battlefield

The Pentagon’s top tech research arm is reaching out to gaming community to help cure a blood infection that kills troops in battlefield hospitals every year.

The disease is sepsis, a blood infection that turns deadly when a patient goes into septic shock as the body tries to fight an infection. Troops often go into septic shock after suffering a massive trauma like losing a leg to a road side bomb.

Leaders of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as DARPA, want to fight that disease and have challenged the game and online community at Foldit, a website funded by DARPA, to help cure it. 

DARPA has asked the Foldit community to tinker with protein designs in a massive brainstorming session to design new proteins to attack the ones that cause sepsis. The hope is to design “protein-based pathogen capture reagents to be used for the removal of circulating pathogens patients’ blood as part of a larger [dialysis-like therapeutic] system,” according to DARPA.

The Pentagon had success with this approach in January when the Foldit online community of more than 240,000 gamers helped scientists remodel a reaction in organic synthesis. Had scientists had toiled over the protein design for years. Foldit users helped them solve it in three weeks.

About the Author

Michael Hoffman
Michael Hoffman is the executive editor at Tandem NSI and a contributor to Military.com. He can be reached at mhoffman@tandemnsi.com.
  • Pilgrimman

    This is effing awesome.

  • Musson

    In 2011, players of Foldit helped to decipher the crystal structure of the Mason-Pfizer monkey virus (M-PMV) retroviral protease, an AIDS-causing monkey virus. While the puzzle was available to play for a period of three weeks, players produced an accurate 3D model of the enzyme in just ten days. The problem of how to configure the structure of the enzyme had stumped scientists for 15 years.

    The top protien folder in the world was a woman from Manchester who was an exec assistant at a rehab clinic.

    • blight_


      Using a starting structure from Rosetta, a best structure was determined that matched eventual crystal structure.

      What this suggests is that they went through every candidate and did additional optimizations. The fact that the 4th best was the “actual” structure is due to the fact that XRC itself requires inhibitors to lock a protein into a conformation for proper diffraction. Then there’s effects of using overly high or low salt to trigger crystallization.

      The other weakness is the folding funnel; that folding events commit a structure to a future series of folds, making global sampling difficult if not impossible.

      “The main problem was a lack of diversity in the conformational
      space explored by Foldit players because the starting models were
      already minimized with the same Rosetta energy function used by
      Foldit. This made it very difficult for Foldit players to get out of these
      local minima, and the only way for the players to improve their Foldit
      scores was to make very small changes”


      “Thus, in a situation where one model out of several is in a near-native
      conformation, Foldit players can recognize it and improve it to become
      the best model. Unfortunately for the other Free Modeling targets, there
      were no similarly outstanding Rosetta Server starting models, so Foldit
      players simply tunneled to the nearest incorrect local minima.”

      Going back to the structural biology, I remain in favor of using NMR to capture conformational ensembles rather than the single PDB corresponding to a particular salt concentration and protein antagonist.

  • elmondohummus

    It’s almost like the SETI@home project, but with actual, tangible benefits. :D

    Jokes aside: It’s weird to think of where crowdsourcing ends up providing a net benefit. In news reporting, you’d have thought that crowdsourced information would be awesome; national reporting with locals chipping in for flavor and details not apparent to the big picture guys. You’d have thought people would be enthusiastic about it. And there’s some limited flavor of that in things like CNN’s iReport offerings. But by and large, news crowdsourcing has turned into a disaster; it’s either overhyped or overheated, unconfirmed stuff gleaned from Twitter, or it’s idiots spamming comments sections with everything from the trivial to the stupid. It’s not come anywhere near approacing its full potential.

    But crowdsourcing via Foldit? If discoveries continue, it’ll be a terrific success. And who’d have thunk it would be *this* that would show the benefits?

    • ghostwhowalks

      ITs not really ‘crowdsourcing’, it seems they just just their pc power as a sort of giant parallel computing project.
      I dont think an individualised result would be welcomed as they would in say writing bits of computer code or contributing photos of weather stations

    • blight_

      If you read the associated scientific literature, they used ab initio chemistry starting structures…which demonstrates that the real deliverable is how close the homology free prediction systems are that they only need minor tweaks by humans to get them ready for prime time.

  • BlackOwl18E

    And my parents said video games are a waste of time… I guess there’s an exception to the rule for everything.

    • blight_

      Unless you want to spend your days folding proteins from Rosetta starting structures…?

      • Jack

        …that saves people’s lives.

        • blight_

          This isn’t anything particularly innovative for DARPA, as it’s duplicative of work usually funded by NIH.

          If DARPA wants to muscle into structural biology, perhaps the government should consider having DARPA open up structural biology grants for the academic labs already doing work in this area.

          It was work by labs like David Baker’s who made Rosetta, and FoldIt…and funded through NIH over a long period of time.

      • KRG

        Gamers spend hours upon hours trying to kill a dragon, or figure out a Portal 2 puzzle. A challenge where a gamer can see a real world benefit is another thing entirely.

        Since I was young I had to figure out puzzles to beat a video game. Gamers like the challenge, and the fact it actually helps is pretty amazing. Essentially, they tap into the thousands of computers and tens of thousands of man hours that they can’t with normal resources.

    • chuckiechan

      True, but most are only active when you are not using your computer…

  • Bongo

    Everybody knows that we, in the world of Call of Duty, have soldiers that autoheal after 5 seconds so I say this blood infection thing is BS

  • Chris

    Enough talk gamers. Get at it!

  • morty

    my random online gaming might actualy help out some day? …….. Interesting

  • joe

    Hmm…… given the (endless) comments about China stealing innovations, here is a chance to get something back; deploy the WoW ‘farmers’ en masse and we’ll probably have beaten AIDS, cancer and the common cold by this time sunday….

    On a more serious note, briliant idea and where do I sign up?

    • ghostwhowalks

      $29.99 at your gaming shop !

    • Bill in Lexington,NC


      Although I’m sure gamers did their share, a ton of the grunt work is done by old farts like me … the the last game I played was Wolfenstein 3D.

      On DOS 3.1 with a 10Mhz CPU, a math co-processor and a WHOLE MEGABYTE of RAM and a 40 Meg hard drive and a VGA display.

      I now run the latest and greatest from Debian on a machine that is easily 100x more powerful. Life goes on.


    Sign me up……….yep sign me up!!!!!

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  • Bill in Lexington,NC

    Anybody using ANY operating system who has a few spare clock cycles to donate (that’s all of you!) need only type BOINC into their search bar to play a part in more than a dozen similar projects.

    At the end of WW2 there were three un-decoded German ciphers. Two of them have been solved. My machine is chugging away on the final one. Whoever solves it gets a brownie point. (Oops … just checked — all three have been decoded. The project is now working on some very short messages sent using the Enigma machine … the shortest solved so far is 72 characters (the shorter they are, the less chance of solving them).