If you want to take part in hunting down an infectious killer, there's now an online game to suit your desire. Designed at UCLA with the non-scientist in mind, the game allows players to separate healthy from infected blood cells to diagnose malaria. What's more, laypeople using the game after a tutorial were able to spot the bug nearly as accurately as a trained professional, the university said.
The game appears to advance applications of crowdsourcing in medicine. With the help of the Internet and distributed computing resources, researchers have found that hobbyists with varying degrees of technical training have used online games to solve complex biological problems. For instance, players of the online protein-folding game Foldit nailed down the structure of an AIDS-related enzyme that had stumped trained experts for years.
UCLA researchers see the same dynamic of tapping the collective intelligence of groups of non-experts playing a role in disease diagnosis. They believe that their online game for malaria diagnosis could provide a practical solution to the lack of trained eyes to diagnose the disease, especially in developing countries. Malaria infections impact more than 200 million people worldwide annually, and there are many misdiagnoses that result in unnecessary treatment.
Today, the go-to approach for diagnosing malaria involves a pathologist examining cells under a microscope to spot parasites in a sample. The volume of potential cases can be overwhelming and exhaust the medical resources available to handle them in some parts of the world, however, and the group at UCLA views their online game as empowering almost anyone to step up and help solve the problem. Yet there could be some questions in the medical community about putting diagnoses of a life-threatening disease like malaria in the hands of online video game players.
"I believe that, similar to other very innovative ideas, one of the major challenges will be the skepticism of traditional microscopists, pathologists and clinical laboratory personnel, not to mention malaria experts, who will initially view with suspicion a gaming approach in malaria diagnostics," stated Karin Nielsen, a professor of infectious diseases in the department of pediatrics at UCLA's Geffen School of Medicine, who is an author of the study.
"It is a very revolutionary proposal and it might take a few clinical studies in the field to document the efficacy of this platform in order to convince traditional microbiologists and other infectious disease colleagues," Nielsen added.