A Video Game Where Players Help Real Doctors Diagnose Malaria

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How harnessing the power of crowds is leading to major medical breakthroughs

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University of California Los Angeles

Video game players may soon become the latest line of defense against malaria. University of California researchers have developed a free, Internet-based pattern recognition game based on images of real life blood cells. Researchers hope the online tool will cut down the amount of time it now takes to distinguish infected red blood cells from healthy ones.

So far, untrained volunteers at UCLA have managed to diagnose malarial blood cells with about as much accuracy as a trained pathologist, according to the researchers. With a 1.25 percent variation in accuracy compared with a real health professional, crowdsourcing a way toward better malaria treatment seems like a realistic future.

Gamers begin with a short tutorial where they first learn the characteristics of an infected blood cell. Then, they're presented with a six-by-eight grid of blood cells. The object of the game is to use one tool to neutralize bad cells and another to select all the remaining healthy cells. Once they've cleared a stage, players are given another grid to analyze.

In developing nations, analyzing blood samples is a time-consuming process. Where doctors are scarce, diagnosis can take even longer. Having lots of unskilled gamers do the legwork not only speeds things up, but also improves the accuracy of the results, the researchers say.

But UCLA isn't alone in the pursuit of crowdsourced science. At the University of Washington, developers have created a game called FoldIt, where players wrestle with ways in which proteins fold themselves into different configurations. Understanding the role that proteins play in disease can help scientists crack a pathogen's code. It can even lead to the creation of new, synthetic proteins as part of drug research.

How awesome is this game? This awesome:

A small group of enthusiastic gamers on a site called Foldit recently solved the structure of a protein found in an AIDS-like monkey virus. The structure had stumped scientists for over a decade; the gamers, incredibly, cracked it in less than three weeks.

Now, if only playing Call of Duty were so productive.

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Brian Fung is the technology writer at National Journal. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and has written for Foreign Policy and The Washington Post.

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