How an App Can Help Fight Alzheimer’s

Alissa Sauer
By Alissa SauerFebruary 10, 2015

What if you could make a difference in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease while you slept? A new app from Stanford University makes that a reality.

The app, developed by Dr. Vijay Pande, a professor of chemistry a Stanford University,  is called “Folding@Home,” and it simulates the structure of dozens of proteins and can help make important advances in cancer and Alzheimer’s research. Learn more.

Studying Protein Folding with an App

A new app called “Folding@Home,” developed by Dr. Vijay Pande, professor of chemistry at Stanford University, has the potential to make groundbreaking advances in the fight against diseases like Alzheimer’s and cancer.

The app simulates protein folding while the phone is not in use, and can show researchers how the proteins — which are produced as linear molecules — “fold” and snarl up like a ball, which is the first step in a change which can lead to Alzheimer’s.

The way that proteins fold is crucial to how the protein functions. If a malfunction occurs and shifts some pieces even a bit, the protein will not function properly. When the protein folds itself into a new shape with even microscopic changes, disease can occur. Because the folding process occurs so quickly, even the slowest proteins still fold within a few milliseconds, making them virtually impossible to observe in a lab environment, which is why the best way to study protein folding is through simulation.

Protein simulation is not an easy process, and needs thousands of hours of computing time to unfold one protein. Instead of building a powerful supercomputer, the research team chose to build an application that can use the processors of other computers with each computer contributing to the network.

There are now more than 150,000 computers connected to the lab.

Fighting Alzheimer’s in Your Sleep

The app is designed to run while phones are not in use, usually while they are charging and while the owner is sleeping. When the phone is in use again, the application will shut down and the simulation will move to another phone that is not in use.

Dr. Pande is hopeful that the study of protein folding will lead to huge breakthroughs in the fight against diseases which currently have no cure. He says: “In order to publish a new paper, something that represents a genuine step forward, we would need about 150,000 “phone — days”, that’s one phone running 24/7. Split that up amongst 10,000 phones though, and all of a sudden you’re looking at two weeks. The increase in computing capacity is having a real effect on what we can achieve, for example: Our work was recently used in a paper that featured in the Journal of Medical Chemistry on small-molecule drug candidates for the treatment of Alzheimers.

He continues:

“It’s not a cure yet, but it is a major step forward, that brings a cure closer. There’s some light at the end of the tunnel and it’s down to these huge computer networks.”

The app is available for download from Google Play and is compatible with Xperia Z series smartphones. It is also planned to be available for all smartphones running Android 4.4 and above this year.

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Alissa Sauer

Alissa Sauer

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