The answer to dementia and other degenerative diseases may be one computer simulation away. Del Lucent, assistant professor of physics, is studying how a process called protein folding could help find a cure for diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and several types of cancer.
Lucent, who earned his bachelor’s degree at Wilkes and his doctorate at Stanford, is part of a world-wide scientific project dedicated to the study of proteins and molecules, which he describes as “nature’s nanomachines. These nanomachines perform nearly all of the processes needed to keep you alive.” Proteins and molecules are formed inside our bodies’ cells where our DNA tells the cells how to order amino acids into a protein chain. Once the chain is formed it folds into a functional shape that performs a specific process. When proteins misfold diseases occur.
It is impossible to view the process in real time at the atomic level. Lucent uses a computer program to simulate protein folding. There’s only one drawback: It takes a long time to run a single simulation. Lucent says that one of the best ways to obtain faster results is to use hundreds or thousands of individual computers to solve smaller parts of a larger simulation, a collaborative process known as distributed computing. Lucent is part of Stanford’s Folding@home project which employs computer simulation and distributed computing methods to learn more about protein folding inside cells. Wilkes students help Lucent with his laboratory research which also includes enzyme design and protein-drug interactions.