The Folding@home mobile app is an extension of the Folding@home distributed computing project launched by Vijay Pande, a professor of chemistry at Stanford University, in collaboration with Japanese corporate giant Sony in 2007.

The new app, Pande said, expands on the original programme, which has already simulated the structure of dozens of proteins and led to many important discoveries related to physiology and medicine.

Proteins are produced as linear ribbons of molecules, and then snarl up like a ball of yarn, a process known as "folding."

The configuration of that snarl is intensely critical to the protein's ability to function properly.

If a mutation or other malfunction shifts a few pieces slightly out of place, the protein's function will be impaired.
One of the best ways to study protein configurations is to predict the folding process using computers.

In 2007 Pande and Sony launched the Folding@home project, tapping a distributed network of computer and Playstation 3 GPUs (graphics processing units) to simulate protein folding in their downtime.

The desktop programme counts roughly 150,000 users and can provide full models of specific proteins - which are submitted for simulation at researchers' request – to scientists in weeks.

The new app is designed to run only when your phone is not in use, most likely as it charges while you sleep.     

Once you activate your phone, the application will shut down and seamlessly hand the simulation to another phone that is not in use, which Pande said should maximise the network's capacity.

Currently Pande has chosen for the application to focus on simulating several configurations of a kinase protein involved in breast cancer.

Scientists have found that individual breast cancer patients respond more favourably to different drugs, and they believe that this reaction might be due to individual differences in how this kinase is configured.     

Pande said that simulating a dozen or so possible configurations of the kinase, and then testing how these fit with a suite of drugs, could help identify better courses of treatment.

The kinase takes about 300,000 nanoseconds to fold, and a smartphone can simulate about one nanosecond per day, Pande said. If 10,000 phones work eight hours a day, the project could be complete in three months.

Once the enrolled smartphones simulate the proteins with enough specificity to be useful to scientists, the app will launch a new project, this one to investigate proteins associated with Alzheimer's disease.