Soon you can video game for science and cure cancer

Posted on May 13, 2017

Researchers and developers at Southern Methodist University (Dallas, USA) have come up with a great way to increase their computing power in the search for novel chemotherapy drugs to fight cancer.

Using Minecraft.

Nearly 20 years ago in 1999, computer geeks around the world eagerly downloaded a screensaver program called SETI@home to lend their computing power in the search for extra-terrestrial life.  Now in 2017, we live in an age where screensaver programs of flying toasters and Homer eating your desktop are but a distant memory, there is question of some possessing intelligent life here on Earth, and our computing power has astronomically increased with our mobile phones possessing more computing power than in the 90’s.

The SMU team are continuing to utilise crowdsourced computing in a novel way – using players of the game Minecraft to identify compounds that can help solve the problem of chemotherapy failure after repeated use.

“Crowdsourcing as well as computational power may help us narrow down our search and give us better chances at selecting a drug that will be successful,” said Pia Vogel (Biochemistry Professor, SMU). “And gamers can take pride in knowing they’ve helped find answers to an important medical problem.”

SMU researchers have already sorted through millions of potential compounds to identify about 100 or more characteristics that may be useful, using their supercomputer Maneframe headed by Deputy Director of the SMU Guildhall, Corey Clark.

The SMU Maneframe supercomputer. But can it create mazes for chickens? I didn't think so.
The SMU Maneframe supercomputer. But can it create mazes for chickens? I didn’t think so.

“Corey’s contribution will hopefully tell us which dozen perhaps of these 100 characteristics are the important ones,” Vogel said. “Right now of those 100 characteristics, we don’t know which ones are good ones. We want to see if there’s a way with what we learn from Corey’s gaming system to then apply what we learn to millions of other compounds to separate the wheat from the chaff.”

And a modded version of Minecraft is set to prove just that.  The researchers have predicted using just 25,000 players will double the computing power of their own supercomputer.  The modded version will contain the research data itself so gamers will not only be lending their computing power, but will be actively engaged in solving the research question.  Yes, you can be a scientist and Minecraft is your lab.

This method has been proven to be a success in the past, with the online puzzle game Foldit.  This title developed by the University of Washington was able to determine the structure of an AIDS-related enzyme in three weeks using the combined skills of 57,000 players.

Example puzzle of the game Foldit that helped forward AIDS research
Example puzzle of the game Foldit that helped forward AIDS research

The SMU modded version of Minecraft is expected to go through beta testing at the end of 2017 with a release to the public in the second quarter of 2018.