Finding the fun in cancer research- Citizen Science the game!
Sometimes I wonder about how quickly I can incorporate some habits into my life, and how others just do not seem to stick. However, I am a little embarrassed to admit, I rarely miss doing my daily Wordle puzzle. Like so many people, I carve out a small moment of my day to complete this nice and convenient game, that I gain great a deal of satisfaction everytime I see those little green squares pop up.
But what if we could harness the power and ingenuity of all these people to help solve real-life issues, and help develop technologies that could help make the world a better place?
Well, if Worldle is already interesting in itself for keeping minds awake, there are games that while stimulating the intellect also allow science to advance in a collaborative way. One example is the game Genigma, developed as part of the Orion Open Science Project, which allows citizens from all over the world to collaborate in genome research via their smartphones. In this game, players are part of a team of genome explorers trying to map the DNA of cancer cells, discover their order and disorder (mutations) in the genetic sequence, contribute to reach consensus solutions with other players and collaborate to the research with their logic.
The ORION project funded the idea of Genigma proposed by two postdoctoral researchers from the CNAG-CRG, who were working in the Structural Genomics Group trying to map the 3D structure of DNA strands. Thanks to this support, it was possible to form a multidisciplinary team that for 2.5 years was co-creating and testing the game, together with the public.
We talked to Elisabetta Broglio, CS facilitator at the CRG and GENIGMA project coordinator, to hear about how the app development worked and the current state of the project.
“The Orion Open Science project gave us the possibility to apply the co-creation method from the beginning. Both Citizen Science and co-creation processes were something very new for the research team: my role was to introduce these methodologies at the CNAG-CRG and accompany them in the process. We were able to put together a multidisciplinary team by hiring game designers, programmers and illustrators and together with the scientific team we transformed the ideas that emerged from the co-creations with the citizens into a ‘product’ able to generate new scientific knowledge: the GENIGMA game.
We decided to work with the public in all phases of the project. After the co-creations, from which we extracted the ideas needed to create the game based on the interests and needs of the public, we sought their feedback and incorporated their suggestions in each of the testing phases of the different versions of the app. Around 500 people (artists, patients, teachers, students, storytellers, professional gamers, scientists from other disciplines among others) collaborated with the project before the launch of the app, at the end of January 2022. This process was transparent and all the steps were posted in the web and social networks to give visibility to participants and create a “community” around the project. It was also a way to recognize people’s effort and acknowledge to all contributors their work and enthusiasm.
GENIGMA is at the same time a project, a game and an experiment.
To our knowledge, there are no similar projects to analyse the human genome with collaborative analysis as we propose. This is the main reason for which we are considering GENIGMA as an experiment. We tested the efficiency of the game before the launch using genome data from healthy cells (whose order of the “elements” are quite well known by scientists). On this occasion, testers could find the correct order playing through their phone. Now we are playing with the cancer genome, trying to discover which kind of rearrangements are occurring in this specific cancer (breast cancer). A priori we don’t know the solution, so are people that will give us the answer! We use consensus among players to close games and progress in the analysis. Again, the role of citizens is very essential!
At the moment, 15 weeks after the launch, 36,000 people from 154 countries downloaded this CS game and we collected more than 560,000 data points. More than 80% of the breast cancer genome has been collectively analysed and more than 160 genomic regions have been detected as “rearranged” (different to those of healthy cells).
We are very impressed with the good reception of the project. Once completed we will need to dedicate time to the analysis in details of the results obtained. In the future, these results will be public and available to the scientific community that will be able to use this new “genomic map” to search for new treatments for cancer.”
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The development of smart technologies have allowed for the seamless integration of data collection and consolidation directly into the pockets of anyone with a modern mobile phone, which has allowed for a massive influx in the capabilities of those interested in taking part in a citizen science project, and CS is a fantastic way of both including the general public in the scientific process and conducting scientific outreach to the community. However those who generally get involved with projects such as these, are those who already either have a general interest in the subject or the specific issue you are addressing, rather than those who might not, so reaching out and engaging to those outside of these circles can be more of a challenge. However, by integrating this process into a game might be an effective way of getting a more general audience involved in citizen science projects, and through interacting with the game, the player can learn more about the project and subject matter organically through gameplay. In addition to this the Genigma team have also developed outreach material in game and  teaching guides and resources, featuring bespoke material that teachers can use along with the game to help integrate these subjects into a lesson plan. After the major success of Genigma, the CRG aims to carry this momentum forward in order to promote a cultural and institutional change in the use of citizen science at the centre. In this regard, the actions that will be implemented in the frame of the TIME4CS project, in which the CRG acts as an ‘Implementer’, will be hugely valuable to attain the final goal: to legitimate a sustainable and widely used citizen science methodology at the CRG in the near future.
To learn more about the Genigma project head over to https://genigmagame.app/en/, or you can search in the app store and try the game for yourself, and be a part of groundbreaking cancer research, and maybe put away wordle…. At least for a little while!
Chris Styles (EUSEA) and Elisabetta Broglio (CS facilitator at the CRG and GENIGMA project coordinator)