This video game holds the clue for a potential cure for cancer

Jun 18, 2017, 13:00 IST | Kusumita Das

A potential cure for Alzheimer's and cancer could well come from youngsters playing a video game, thanks to this Indiana chemistry professor

Gaurav Chopra has created a video game that is designed to stumble upon drug combinations to cure cancer
Gaurav Chopra has created a video game that is designed to stumble upon drug combinations to cure cancer

Of all the research undertaken to find the cure for Alzheimer's disease and cancer, this one certainly appears one of a kind. Gaurav Chopra, an assistant professor in Chemistry from Purdue University, Indiana, has created a video game that is designed to stumble upon potential drug combinations for the cure of these deadly diseases. The idea, Chopra says, is to engage the public in scientific discovery. It's a virtual reality game that allows the player to potentially discover a new treatment for the diseases by manipulating drug compounds loaded into the game.

Explaining how the game works, Chopra says, "With an HTC Vive headset strapped on and controllers in both hands, the game takes the user inside a biological cell. The goal is to find the right combination of molecules to combat diseases. There are target proteins loaded into the game, that have been identified as playing some role that may lead to an important advance in treatment. As the player rearranges the drug compound and docks it into the target protein, the game displays a score that represents how well the compound is binding to the target."

While in theory, the process sounds like something that's hard to sink one's teeth into, the professor assures that the real game play is quite the opposite. He also stresses that one does not require a degree in chemistry to be able to play the game. "You don't need that to have fun manipulating molecular models or diving into a colourful protein. Players can create new molecules, which is where the true uniqueness of the game comes in."

The game is currently being developed at Chopra's lab in Purdue University
The game is currently being developed at Chopra's lab in Purdue University

Why virtual reality, we ask. "We focused on virtual reality mainly because VR gives you an intuitive sense of manipulation and in the field of drug design, being able to visualise data is really important. Also, there is already a lot of 2D visualisation software that show how drugs interact with proteins. But, there is only so much you can do on a computer screen."

While gaming and medical research may not be terms one would use in the same breath, Chopra explains why crowd-sourcing can work in this case. "If you have a small molecule with 100 atoms, the possible ways of arranging these atoms are on the order of 1,047 (think 1 with 47 zeros behind it). That is astronomical in terms of computing power, which is why we need supercomputers. But, with crowd-sourcing, this problem can be tackled by multiple people at the same time. And, if you make it into a game, people will figure out how to get a better score in the game, even if they don't have a deep understanding of the chemistry behind it."

The game is still being developed further to amp up its entertainment quotient.

The plan is to design it as a multiplayer game that lets users compete against each other, as well as against the computer. "We eventually hope to make this technology available to all through a mobile application," says Chopra.

While medical research remains the mainstay behind the concept, for Chopra, the game is also about making Chemistry as a subject exciting for students. "I really want my six-year-old daughter to play this and be excited to know more about molecules. Our dream is that people around the world should contribute protein targets and disease targets to the game and we can find drugs for all those targets together.

Just play on and solve those targets."

But, as something that has been developed in a Chemistry lab, this is more than just a game. "If you beat the computer, we are going to go in and test what the player did in the lab. If that test pans out, the player will be a co-author on the paper we write about it. We want to involve the community in this research," Chopra says.

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