“Can an Online Game Help Create a Better Test for Tuberculosis?”

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The Story

“Can an Online Game Help Create a Better Test for Tuberculosis?”
by Esther Landhuis
NPR Shots blog, May 2, 2016

The Pitch

Hi Nancy,

I found your contact through [redacted]. Hopefully you’re the one to pitch for NPR Shots?

I’ve got a biomed/tech story that’s off the beaten path — but it’s a provocative example that shows just how far citizen science has come. It’s about Eterna, an online game where players solve puzzles related to the folding of RNA molecules. Not only are players digging the game and learning the science, they’re also organizing their own conferences, publishing their own papers and — starting next week — they’ll try to design a molecule that could serve as a diagnostic for active tuberculosis.
That last bit is the newsy part — the first Eterna challenge aimed at a specific disease. Here’s the pitch —
Could online gamers design the next TB diagnostic?

Though it kills about as many as HIV, tuberculosis remains surprisingly tricky to diagnose. But here’s a bigger surprise — Stanford researchers think video gamers can help create a better diagnostic.

Last month bioinformatician Purvesh Khatri and coworkers reported their identification of three genes whose expression distinguishes people with active TB from those who were sick previously or merely had a TB vaccination. Now imagine a special molecule that adopts a certain shape only when the relative concentrations of all three expressed genes—or RNAs—were just so. If such a molecule existed, it could serve as a sensor in a simple blood test for TB. As it turns out, computational biochemist Rhiju Das believes this “molecular calculator” can be designed.

Das is the co-creator of an online puzzle game, Eterna, which asks players to create RNA molecules that fold into specified shapes. Advanced players have come up with “switch designs” — RNA structures that fold differently and interact with another molecule to fluoresce in the presence of other chemicals. Their next challenge — which will launch in early April (probably between 4th and 11th) — is to create an RNA structure that can act as a sensor for the three TB signature genes.
About me: I’m a Bay Area science journalist who’s written about health and biomedical research— including other citizen science and open science initiatives—for Scientific American, Science, Quartz, Alzheimer Research Forum, Cancer Discovery and other outlets.

I learned about the Eterna TB project while reporting a broader story on gaming approaches in biomedicine. I’ve already spoken with Das and one of the top Eterna players. I also know of Caltech researchers who use Eterna to create scripts for their own RNA research — they could serve as outside sources, if needed.

Many thanks for considering this proposal. Since it’s time-sensitive, I’m hoping you can get back to me today?

Happy to answer further questions if needed.

Regards, Esther

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