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Gamers’ New Target: Breast Cancer

An updated video game offers a novel research tool in the fight against breast cancer.

By John Harlow

(Illustration by: Ben Konkol)

This article was originally published by UCLA Newsroom

Friend or enemy? Shoot, or save? These choices are familiar to generations of video gamers who have squared off against aliens, beasts and endless bad guys. But now some are playing in the real world — this time to save real lives.

Twelve years ago this summer, UCLA medical engineers coded one of the first “biogames” — video games that encourage players who would normally use their skills for Call of Duty to turn their game faces toward a good cause. In the UCLA game, that cause was identifying “bad,” or malaria-infected, red blood cells on a screen, then digitally erasing them. Aydogan Ozcan, who is the Chancellor’s Professor and Volgenau Chair for Engineering Innovation, says the novel approach proved vital in teaching people how to recognize unhealthy cells.

“It was amazing how quickly competitive gamers, whether they had a medical background or not, learned to identify malaria-infected cells,” he says.

Not your dad’s Atari: Gamifying biotech offers students a new, fun, cool way to identify cancer cells. (Image courtesy: Aydogan Ozcan)

A new, updated version of this medical shoot-’em-up is now arriving. Able to be played on a smartphone or tablet, this latest iteration was launched to help pathologists-in-training identify key breast cancer biomarkers.

The new game has better security and a sleeker interface. Over the past months, the original UCLA team has rebuilt the game from scratch to create this version, improving graphics and speeding up play.

But while the game may be new, the concept behind it stretches back more than a century. In 1911, statistician Sir Francis Galton noticed at a livestock “guess the weight” contest entered by 800 bovine fans that the median estimate was within 0.8% of the true weight of the beast. This suggested that crowdsourcing had value.

“Conceptually, we are adopting a similar approach to the livestock observers by crowdsourcing medical diagnoses,” says Ozcan. “We are finding that the median diagnosis by non-medical volunteers is within around 98% [of the diagnoses made by] the professionals.”

The game works like this: After a short training phrase, players turn to their screen to look at multiple images of red blood cells. Gamers are armed with a digital syringe to use for destroying infected “cells” — wrongly colored or misshapen targets — and “banking” healthy ones. In the new version, the enemies to be zapped are key tissue biomarkers associated with breast cancer, which afflicts one in seven women. It’s all part of embracing new tech and new approaches to our thorniest medical problems.

“We need to invent new tools to identify medical problems at the earliest opportunity,” Ozcan says. “Harnessing the wisdom of crowds, and gamers, is another way of training medical personnel to save lives.”