Can An Online Game Help Create A Better Test For TB?

Esther Landhuis at NPR: “Though it’s the world’s top infectious killer, tuberculosis is surprisingly tricky to diagnose. Scientists think that video gamers can help them create a better diagnostic test.

An online puzzle released Monday will see whether the researchers are right. Players of a Web-based game called EteRNA will try to design a sensor molecule that could potentially make diagnosing TB as easy as taking a home pregnancy test. The TB puzzle marks the launch of “EteRNA Medicine.”

The idea of rallying gamers to fight TB arose as two young Stanford University professors chatted over dinner at a conference last May. Rhiju Das, a biochemist who helped create EteRNA, told bioinformatician Purvesh Khatri about the game, which challenges nonexperts to design RNA molecules that fold into target shapes.

RNA molecules play key roles in biology and disease. Some brain disorders can be traced to problems with RNA folding. Viruses such as H1N1 flu and HIV depend on RNA elements to replicate and infect cells.

Das wants to “fight fire with fire” — that is, to disrupt the RNA involved in a disease or virus by crafting new tools that are themselves made of RNA molecules. EteRNA players learn RNA design principles with each puzzle they solve.

Khatri was intrigued by the notion of engaging the public to solve problems. His lab develops novel diagnostics using publicly available data sets. The team had just published a paper on a set of genes that could help diagnose sepsis and had other papers under review on influenza and TB.

In an “Aha!” moment during their dinner chat, Khatri says, he and Das realized “how awesome it would be to sequentially merge our two approaches — to use public data to find a diagnostic marker for a disease, and then use the public’s help to develop the test.”

TB seemed opportune as it has a simple diagnostic signature — a set of three human genes that turn up or down predictably after TB infection. When checked across gene data on thousands of blood samples from 14 groups of people around the globe, the behavior of the three-gene set readily identified people with active TB, distinguishing them from individuals who had latent TB or other diseases.

Those findings, published in February, have gotten serious attention — not only from curious patients and doctors but also from humanitarian groups eager to help bring a better TB test to market. It can currently take several tests to tell whether a person has active TB, including a chest X-ray and sputum test. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has started sending data to help the Stanford team validate a test based on the newly identified TB gene signature, says study leader Khatri, who works at the university’s Center for Biomedical Informatics Research….(More)”