Health and Medicine Technology

Video Game Released That Tests for Tuberculosis

eterna game

Standford University School of Medicine researchers have released a new version of an online video game that will combine the brain power of thousands of people who play. Through taking part in the Eterna Medicine game, players will help to build a molecule that is planned to be used to further the development of a new type of test for tuberculosis (TB).

TB affects about a third of the population throughout the world, killing 1.5 million people every single year. At this time, many health organizations around the globe do not have access to a recently created blood test that can quickly detect the infection. This new blood test was built by Purvesh Khatri, PhD along with his team. The test observes the “expression” levels of three genes. In order to simplify the test further for a more portable diagnosis, Das says a molecule is required that can help to calculate molecule proportions.

A slide packing an array of RNA molecules designed by Eterna players is placed under a unique laser microscope created by the Das and Greenleaf laboratories at the School of Medicine.
(Image Credits: Charlie Wilkes)

Co-creator of Eterna, Rhiju Das, PhD, says the new game may someday help individuals create their very own pharmaceuticals. The associate professor of biochemistry within Stanford currently has 100,000 players registered to play the game. The initial release of the game five years ago had players becoming more knowledgeable about exactly how to design extremely complex RNA molecules. Recently, the team even published an article in the Journal of Molecular Biology that pinpoints a number of rules that can help one predict the difficulty of building any RNA molecule. This molecule, once discovered, will help make the Khatri blood test something available to many more people throughout the world.

Das anticipates the game will create tens of thousands of designs, from those numbers he hopes to locate a thousand that may pave the way for better diagnosis and quicker treatment of TB sufferers. Upon testing each molecule provided, a subset of about 15 can then be studied to find the best fit for a stick-test blood test. The blood test would make testing for TB very similar to the simplicity of taking a home pregnancy test.

If Eterna proves to be successful, players will design an RNA molecule named “OpenTB”. This molecule will contain three parts. If designed correctly, the RNA molecules will bind to one another and they will actually manipulate the shape of TB cells.

Das labels the three parts of RNA molecules A, B, and C. He says if a lot of As and Bs are present, OpenTB will become shape 1. If there are a lot of Cs, shape 2 will be created. For the work to be successful, shape 1 must bind with a fluorescent tag, while shape 2 must not bind. Das will then measure surrounding light brightness in order to figure out what proportion of the Eterna molecules have become shape 1. From there, he can quickly calculate the shape 2 and 3 proportions as well. If the light is above a certain brightness threshold, the patient is known to have tuberculosis.

Khatri says he and Das came up with the TB test idea while eating at a conference dinner and loves the idea. If the test proves successful, data created by patients will be publicly available that will help find a true diagnostic signature for one of the largest killers of mankind. He’s excited to see the public population taking part in building molecules that can help make a better TB test while simply playing a video game.