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In the video game world, Salt Lake City's Matt Pierce powers on his PlayStation 3 console to kill as many virtual villains as he can. But in the real world, he uses it to try and save people.

The 24-year-old UPS supervisor is one of tens of thousands of video gamers around the globe who use their new $600 gaming console to help Stanford University on a project called Folding@home. And their goal has nothing to do with getting the best record in "Madden Football."

Gamers are using it to help find cures for disease.

At least once a week, Pierce, who otherwise likes to turn on his PlayStation 3 (PS3) to play the boxing game "Fight Night 3," leaves the unit on overnight so it can perform calculations that might one day help researchers find cures for diseases like Alzheimer's and certain forms of cancer.

"There are times where I think I might as well run it where it at least is helping people," he said.

The shiny black monolith-like video game system, released last November by Japanese electronics giant Sony, now has a small program on its hard drive that performs what medical scientists call "protein folding."

Proteins are the biological building blocks of the human body that make up enzymes and antibodies used to combat diseases.

But in order to perform these functions, proteins must take a new shape called a "fold" through a process known as "folding." If proteins don't fold correctly, or "misfold," they can cause diseases like cystic fibrosis.

Years to calculate: So scientists are trying to learn why proteins fold and misfold. But it could take a computer years to simulate the process, which happens in as little as one-billionth of a second.

That's where "distributed computing" comes in.

Distributed computing allows people from all over the world to use their personal computers to help analyze data, in effect creating one super computer.

It's a method similar to one used by a popular program called SETI@home that helps researchers at Berkeley analyze radio signals from space to determine if they come from intelligent extraterrestrial life.

"If one of these things [computations] took two years, you couldn't do it. You just wouldn't do a 20-year-project," said Vijay Pande, the Folding@home project director and associate professor of chemistry at Stanford. "But now, something that took five years we can now do in months."

PCs and PS3s around the world can now calculate smaller "work units" of data simultaneously and upload the results to the university.

The Folding@home project began using people's PCs to help compute protein folding in August 2000. In 2006, Sony contacted Stanford to see if the PS3 could be used.

"It was a philanthropic effort," said Noam Rimon, a software development manager for Sony Computer Entertainment of America. "It's not just computations for the sake of computations. The prospect was for the cure for diseases."

Before the introduction of the PS3, there were some 190,000 active desktop PCs crunching calculations for the project, which only requires downloading a small piece of free software. Since Sony started offering the software in March for the PS3, an additional 30,000 video game consoles are actively running it at any given time.

20 times more powerful: And so far, adding the video game console normally used to zap aliens in games like "Resistance: Fall of Man" or "Spider-Man 3" has significantly furthered the research. That's because the PlayStation 3 uses a central processor called the "Cell" that is 20 times more powerful than the fastest desktop computer. In other words, the addition of 30,000 PS3s is equivalent to adding 600,000 desktop processors to the project.

"It turns two years into a month," Pande said. "It's like someone going in a car and then someone going in a fighter jet."

Though it's not a game - turning on the software just starts the calculating, and a virtual 3D version of Earth shows the location of all the active machines turned on at that moment - gamers and tech geeks have been making contests out of churning out results (they have been setting up teams and uploading the results in the names of those teams).

"A lot of the character of what gamers do - like playing in teams and caring about scores - is what makes them interested in this technology," Pande said. "It's something where all of the ingredients were there to make it work."

To find out more about the protein folding program, go to www.