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Videogamers Are Recruited to Fight Tuberculosis and Other Ills

At his laboratory console, Rhiju Das is making a game of a pressing public-health problem. He is recruiting thousands of videogamers to develop a better test for tuberculosis, which infects about one-third of the world’s population.

All they have to do is design a single molecule that can diagnose the disease in a patient’s bloodstream quickly, easily and cheaply—a task that so far has eluded public-health experts. To muster a crowd of amateurs to attempt it, Dr. Das, a biochemist at the Stanford University School of Medicine, and his colleagues this week launched the OpenTB challenge on a Web-based videogame called Eterna.

 

“The players themselves are going to be the inventors,” said Dr. Das. “Any molecule that a top player can make in the game, we will test it in the laboratory.”

Stanford University biochemist Rhiju Das is recruiting thousands of videogamers to develop a better test for tuberculosis by playing the OpenTB challenge on a Web game called Eterna. PHOTO: NORBERT VON DER GROEBEN/STANFORD UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF MEDICINE

His project is the latest in a cascade of crowdsourcing research efforts based on the idea that science is a game that almost anyone can play. By latest count, 1.2 million people in 140 countries are playing research games online that tackle quantum physics, analyze protein structures, test breast-cancer tumors or investigate genetic diseases.

With the enthusiasm of gamers devoted to World of Warcraft or Doom, the 220,000 registered users of EyeWire, a science game developed at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Princeton University, are mapping the maze of neural connections in the retina of the mouse eye.

In a game called Phylo, developed at McGill University, 300,000 players have been cross-indexing disease-related DNA sequences from dozens of species. And in Quantum Moves, conceived at Aarhus University in Denmark, 10,000 players are applying the bizarre laws of quantum mechanics to improve computer design.

“The number of projects has exploded,” said McGill computer scientist Jerome Waldispuhl, who co-founded the Phylo project.

Despite initial misgivings about the accuracy of crowdsourced research, players have produced reliable results and a dozen or so peer-reviewed research papers.

Typically, the players drawn to the science games have no special scientific expertise. They usually are intrigued by the chance to make a useful contribution to research in their spare time.

When Fernando Portela, a telecommunications engineer in Zurich, Switzerland, first learned of the Eterna game, he knew nothing about molecular biology. “I found those first puzzles pretty challenging. It got me completely hooked, a little bit crazily so,” he said.

Screenshot of a puzzle from the OpenTB challenge on the Web-based videogame Eterna. PHOTO: STANFORD UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF MEDICINE

Many scientists are embracing games because they are collecting new data faster than they can make sense of it, due to advances in gene sequencing, imaging and computing.

“It is the Catch-22 of our era: Researchers are drowning in data and don’t have the resources to analyze it,” said Amy Robinson Sterling, director of Wired Differently Inc., a nonprofit that organizes online volunteers for citizen-science games like EyeWire. “It is finally forcing researchers to share what they are doing with the public.”

Players of a game called foldit, which features puzzles about protein structures, came up with an enzyme that speeds up the production of a variety useful drugs. They also solved the structure of a virus that causes an AIDS-like disease in monkeys—a problem that had stumped scientists for a decade.

By harnessing human intuition and visual perception, these crowdsourcing games highlight differences between human and machine intelligence, several game designers said. “All of these citizen-science projects are like a snapshot of what is uniquely human at the moment,” said physicist Jacob Sherson at Aarhus University who helped to design Quantum Moves.

Scientists would like to broaden the appeal. “We are one of the most successful citizen-science projects, but compared to commercial games, we are nothing,” said Eyewire founder Sebastian Seung at Princeton. “We need to make science something that ridiculous numbers of people waste their time on.”

To that end, researchers employ full-time game masters to keep players enthusiastic. Some hired commercial game designers. “We have tried to make them look much more like Candy Crusher or Angry Birds,” said Dr. Sherson.

Last month, researchers working on the Human Protein Atlas maintained at Uppsala University and the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden created an online crowdsourcing game called Project Discovery to explore human cell proteins. Instead of launching it on their own, however, they integrated it into a popular commercial multiplayer videogame called Eve Online, which has about 500,000 subscribers who enjoy its brand of space exploration, planetary commerce and interstellar war.

In the first month of play, the Eve gamers classified about eight million protein elements, project leaders said.

At Stanford, the new OpenTB project takes scientific gaming to the next level, by challenging players to create the key component of a clinical diagnostic device. An earlier version of the Eterna game had 150,000 players.

The new goal is to design a molecule of RNA that can respond to three kinds of TB-related genetic material in a blood sample and then change shape and glow brightly when levels are high enough to indicate that a TB infection is active. All that players need to know about RNA engineering is encoded in the rules of the game.

“We cannot efficiently find solutions to this puzzle with a computer alone,” said Dr. Das. “We are at the mercy of our players to give us designs that we can test.”