Video-gamers developing better diagnostic tests for detecting Tuberculosis

Rhiju Das, a biochemist at the Stanford University School of Medicine along with his colleagues in working to develop a test to diagnose Tuberculosis, a diseases known to be infecting about one-third of the world’s population in a more effective way.

For this purpose, launched the Open TB challenge on a Web-based videogame called Eterna and have been hiring thousands of young video gamers in an attempt to design a single molecule that can diagnose the disease in a patient’s bloodstream.

The idea is to make the players the inventors. Any molecule that a top player will make in the game is tested in the laboratory.

The project is about making a game of a pressing public-health problem by crowd sourcing research efforts. 1.2 million people from 140 countries have already started playing research games online for analyzing  protein structures, testing breast-cancer tumors or investigate genetic diseases.

Players, in spite of the concerns about the accuracy of crowdsourced research and little or no special scientific expertise, have produced reliable results.

It is now a commonplace to see scientists embrace games as it helps them collect new data faster than they can analyze or make sense of it, due to the development and advances in gene sequencing, imaging and computing.

Designing chemical sequences of RNA that assume desired shapes are facilitated by the interactive videogames online. The algorithms assess the thermodynamic stability from the sequences of promising nature to be synthesized and tested in the laboratory to understand the structures that RNA sequences assume in actuality.

It is not easy for a biomedical researcher to assess the difficulty of designing an RNA structure especially for diagnostic or therapy purposes and thus may result in wastage of time and money in creating difficult or impossible shapes for an RNA molecule to assume.

There are experienced gamers who compiled a list of particular features that rendered RNA shapes which are difficult to design sequences for.

They then contacted scientists in Das’ lab to put their ideas to test with a set of predictions — a set of 100 hypothetical RNA shapes that experienced Eterna players rated from relatively “designable” to nearly “intractable.”

And when the supercomputers at Stanford were used to test these predictions by the scientists against a half-dozen standard algorithms developed for the sole purpose of supplying RNA sequences that fold into specified shapes; it was an interesting finding – there is a strong correlation between the players’ rankings and the algorithms’ ability to solve these puzzles.

The hardest puzzles were not solved by the algorithms in spite of being given numerous days of computing time which were indeed solved by the experienced Eterna players.