It’s likely you never expected to aid cutting edge cancer research by playing computer games, but the makers of NanoDoc are asking citizen scientists to do just that. By designing nanoparticles – tiny clusters that are made up of only tens to thousands of atoms – and running simulations of how they interact in the body, players can help expert bioengineers overcome challenges in cancer treatment.
Nanoparticles are promising options for cancer treatment because they can be altered in many ways to target cancer tumors without harming healthy tissue. For example, nanoparticles can be designed to interact only with cancer cells or engineered to deliver medicine to affected areas of the body. The problem bioengineers face is that there are too many combinations of nanoparticle alterations to physically test how each one will behave in the body. To address this, Prof. Bhatia’s lab at MIT developed NanoDoc as a way to crowdsource simulated solutions.
The lead developer of NanoDoc, Dr. Sabine Hauert, states that the program “lets the crowd do the legwork” of testing the different nanoparticle solutions through a fun and educational simulation game. Participants start by playing through various training scenarios, working on challenges that have been previously solved by experts. At each level, the players learn a new skill, which allows them to alter the simulated nanoparticles in new ways. Hauert describes, “Its really a cool stepwise process. You get little diplomas at every step.”
Following the training, players are ready to address NanoDoc challenges, which are unsolved problems proposed by bioengineers. Hauert notes that the advantage of the going through the training first is that it prepares players to “go ahead and start working on the problem right away without an engineer,” enabling individual participants to make real contributions. The participants’ solutions are evaluated based on their scores in the game, and the highest scores are carefully evaluated for their potential to test with physical systems. More of these challenges will be available in the coming weeks with the release of the new version of NanoDoc, which will allow for any user to submit new challenges.
So start your NanoDoc training today and join in the challenge! Your high score could lead to tomorrow’s cure.
Emily Lewis is a PhD candidate in chemistry at Tufts University, where she analyzes industrially important catalysts on the nanoscale. She received her BS and MS degrees from Northeastern University, and her thesis work examined fuel cell catalysts under real operating conditions. She loves learning about energy and the environment, exploring science communication, and investigating the intersection of these topics with the policy world. When she’s not writing or in the lab, you’ll probably spot Emily at the summit of one of the White Mountains in NH. Follow her: @lewisbase, emilyannelewis.com.