Why has humankind been unable to find a treatment for the dreaded AIDS disease that kills many people across the world every year? Which factor is hindering a breakthrough? This World AIDS Day is the perfect occasion to take stock of the situation. Despite the big strides medical science has taken as far as tackling disease and infection is concerned, a definitive treatment for AIDS and HIV continues to escape us. This is despite the fact that millions of dollars as well as human resources are spend globally to fight the deadly disease as well as its spread. There is no dearth of resources. Perhaps, a lack of ‘out-of-the-box thinking’ is preventing a breakthrough?
Online computer gamers make unbelievable discovery
It seems the fight against Aids and HIV need fresh and innovative minds. And this can come from anywhere as recent incidents have shown. For example, research scientists at the University of Washington were unable to crack the structure of a particular protein. Fed up with lack of progress and finding no other alternative, they finally decided to organize a competition for online gamers and enthusiasts. They put up several variations of the molecular structures of the protein on their website, asking netizens to tweak them in innovative ways so as to reach the most energy-efficient variant. A few days after the online effort was launched, a motley assortment of gamers who called themselves ‘The Contenders’ made the breakthrough and posited a structure that is found in an AIDS-like monkey virus. This is the first incident when laypersons (kind of), who were not connected with the research or even scientific pursuits and certainly outside the purview of the scientific community made the discovery and solved what was an entirely scientific problem.
World Aids Day: Research needs out of the box and innovative approach
Seth Cooper, lead designer as well as developer at Foldit, the website through which the discovery was facilitated, remarked that the absence of a scientific, especially biochemistry background, helped the gamers make the remarkable headway and this factor certainly added in their favor. Cooper was explaining the reasons for the surprise discovery. He further added that the online gamers, unaware as they were of the rules of biochemistry, were able ‘to be really creative and come up with a lot of different interesting solutions.’ Could such an approach be taken to find a treatment cure for AIDS/HIV?
Let us take one more example: In the American film Dallas Buyers Club, which is based on a true incident, an AIDS patient comes up with innovative and ingenious ways to fight his infection. In the 1980s, HIV was not well researched and therefore AIDS was pretty much stigmatized. As part of his out of the box and experimental approach to tackle AIDS, the character played by of Matthew McConaughey smuggles medicines, not approved, for treating his own symptoms. He also distributes these to other patients. This is despite him facing resistance from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
These true events also suggest that the scientific community should give up its monopoly over institutional processes and facilitate access to non-technical people who are genuinely spurred by a passion to find a novel treatment. Many a time trained minds can get caught in a rut. Modern medical science and research should be democratic and welcome the general public.
Science should be democratic and allow citizens as active partners in innovation
The UNESCO World Conference on Science says: ‘Today, while unprecedented advances in the sciences are seen, there is need for vigorous and informed democratic debate on production and use of scientific knowledge. Scientific community and decision makers should seek strengthening of public trust and support for science, through such debate.”
Similarly, a British Council conference concluded science should be open and democratic as well as allow citizens as participants and active partners in the processes of innovation and discovery. For a “knowledge society” to truly function exist, a change of mindset is necessary. It is about time the scientific community got rid of its traditional reluctance to let in people from diverse fields. Science needs to adopt a tradition of welcoming with open arms anyone who is able to contribute. It should also try to remove a mistrust that exists between science and society and thereby bring about a radical change in the approach of the traditional practice of science. We pledge that on this World Aids Day.