Folding@Home: Crowdsourcing a cure for cancer?

When we think about crowdsourcing initiatives, we often think about for-profit ventures like Threadless or Kickstarter. But what if you could use crowdsourcing to solve some of humanity’s greatest challenges, and even save millions of lives?

Well that’s exactly what a research group at Stanford has been trying to do since 2000 with the Folding@Home project [1].

What is it and how does it work?

To fulfill their critical roles in human biology, proteins organize themselves into certain shapes and arrangements, a.k.a. folds [2]. But when proteins don’t fold properly, it can potentially lead to diseases like Mad Cow or Alzheimer’s [2]. Vijay Pande’s lab at Stanford wanted to better understand this  protein folding mechanism [1],  so they built a “distributed computing project for disease research that simulates protein folding, computational drug design, and other types of molecular dynamics” [3].

What this basically means is that they needed to perform super complex computations for their research, but instead of doing it all with their own computers, they recruited volunteer users from around the world to donate the unused computing power from their own computers to perform the calculations [1,3].

How are users incentivized and managed?

Unlike many of the crowdsourcing platforms we looked at this semester, the Folding@Home project offers users no financial incentives; they simply offer you the opportunity to be the “One in a Million” who will help combat crippling diseases like cancer [1]. Yet, even without direct incentives, the value of contributing to social good can be a very strong motivator, as evidenced by the $390B+ spent by Americans on yearly donations to charitable organizations [4].

Moreover, Folding@Home makes it incredibly easy for users to participate. You simply download an app onto your computer or mobile device, and the app runs in the background while you perform other tasks [1,5]. So, you get all the moral satisfaction of helping progress scientific research, without any of the hard work.

Indeed, the fact that users don’t actually have to do any work is really a benefit for the Folding@Home system itself. With many crowdsourcing platforms, a big determinant of the system’s success is the quality of the outputs from the crowd. For instance, in the Tongal case, the value of the company was directly tied to the quality of the ad creatives produced by users. With Folding@Home though, the system is indifferent to the skills of its participants; all it needs is the computing power of their machines. In other words, the value derived from users is entirely binary – once a users downloads and uses the app, Folding@Home derives a consistent amount of value regardless of the user’s talents.

What are the risks?

Yet, even a seemingly virtuous system like Folding@Home is not without its risks. For one thing, programs like this could become more commonplace and thus lose their value. For instance, when I was in high school, Livestrong bracelets became super popular among my class. Purchasing the bracelets resulted in a donation to cancer research. Thus, the bracelets became both a fashion statement as well as a way to do some good. Yet before long, different colored bracelets cropped up for every cause imaginable. Soon, folks were choosing what bracelets to wear based on color coordination rather than any affinity for a particular charity or organization.

Something like that could happen with Folding@Home. Presumably, using distributed computing systems could be valuable for a variety of noble causes. Will the market become saturated with different systems, making it harder for users to commit to any given one?

Another area of concern is in terms of security. Folding@Home is associated with Stanford, a reputable institution. But a shadier variant could use the guise of contributing to worthwhile research to infect millions of unsuspecting users with malicious software. Indeed, there are already cases of software developers using unsuspecting people’s computers to do cryptocurrency mining behind the scenes [6]. It’s not hard to imagine something similar happening with a piece of software that claims to do distributed medical research.

What’s next?

It’ll be very exciting to see what sort of progress comes from these kinds of programs. Since Folding@Home was created, the team has directly produced 160 peer reviewed research publications as a result of their work [7]. And a different organization within Stanford has taken a similar approach to leveraging the power of crowds to help push the forefront of scientific research: they “launched a new challenge for the online computer game Eterna in which players are being asked to design an RNA molecule capable of acting as an on/off switch for the gene-editing tool CRISPR/Cas9,” [8].

Hopefully one of these crowdsourcing endeavors might lead to the next big medical breakthrough!


Works Cited:










Apple ResearchKit – Crowdsourcing Medical Research

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