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How Gamers Can Help Cancer Research

8 February 2022
Giulio Prisco

Cancer Game

Scientists led by ​​Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG) have launched GENIGMA. The game enlists players to support cancer research and actively participate in the fight against cancer.

A dedicated website describes GENIGMA as "a game for smartphones to explore genomic alterations in cancer cells." The game recruits "citizen scientists" in the construction of "genomic reference maps that will allow us to understand which parts of the human genome play a key role in the establishment and development of cancer."

The GENIGMA app can be downloaded from Apple’s App store for iPhones and iPads. It can also be downloaded from Google Play for Android devices.

"Anyone with a smartphone from anywhere in the world can download GENIGMA for free and make a direct contribution to research, lending their logic and dexterity to the service of science," says Elisabetta Broglio in a press release issued by CRG. Broglio is a CRG communications and PR specialist with the interesting job title of “citizen science facilitator.”

To play GENIGMA, players have to solve a puzzle involving a string of blocks of different colors and shapes. Each string represents a genetic sequence in the cancer cell line. And how players organize the blocks is a potential solution to the location of genes.

Players have to reorganize the blocks so that they attain the highest-score possible. The game has been designed to ensure that high scores indicate probable locations of genes.

"Cell lines are responsible for the discovery of vaccines, chemotherapies for cancer or IVF for infertility. This makes them a pillar of modern biology," explains lead researcher Marc A. Marti-Renom.

"However, the lack of genome reference maps limits current scientific progress. It's like asking people to navigate modern cities using maps from the past. With the help of other people, we can update these maps, which will allow us to make fast progress in breast cancer research."

The game launched with a three-month GENIGMA Challenge focused on the T-47D breast cancer cell line. This cell line is one of the most commonly used resources in cancer research. The scientists estimate that 30,000 players solving an average of 50 games each would generate enough data to reveal the reference map of the 20,000 genes in this breast cancer cell line.

"Science can often feel inaccessible for most people, which is why being able to pick up your phone to play GENIGMA is so exciting,” says game designer Oriol Ripoll. “Not only can you combine the universal appeal and popularity of videogames to contribute towards advancing medical research, you will also learn more about science."

Physics World notes that solving scientific problems by turning them into games is a popular strategy of citizen science projects. The algorithms upon which GENIGMA is based require significant computational resources and sophisticated Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems. But GENIGMA could crowdsource the job to enthusiastic citizen scientists.

The "herd intelligence" of the players could provide creative solutions in ways that AI might not be able to, the scientists hope. "GENIGMA will analyze the solutions provided by the players as a collective and not as individuals, and will take advantage of creative solutions impossible to find with deterministic algorithms," says Broglio.

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