Video game

Video game players are wanted to solve puzzles and help advance cancer research

GENIGMA game logo. Credit: CRG/CNAG-CRG

The CRG and the CNAG-CRG are launching the #GenigmaChallenge, a citizen science initiative.

CRG and CNAG-CRG today launched GENIGMA, a video game that challenges players to solve puzzles while generating real-world scientific data capable of detecting alterations in genomic sequences and, ultimately, advance breast cancer research.

The game, available today on iOS and Android and available in English, Spanish, Catalan and Italian, is the result of a two-and-a-half-year citizen science project developed by a team of researchers from the Center for Genomic Regulation (CRG ), the Centro Nacional de Análisis Genómico (CNAG-CRG) and gaming professionals.

The game was created to boost global research efforts that depend on cancer cell lines, an essential resource used by scientists to study cancer and test new drugs to treat the disease. One of the limitations of cancer cell lines is the lack of high-resolution genome reference maps, which are needed to help researchers interpret their scientific results, for example by identifying the location of genes of therapeutic interest or potential mutation sites.

“Cell lines are responsible for the discovery of vaccines, chemotherapy against cancer or IVF against infertility. This makes it a pillar of modern biology”, explains Marc A. Marti-Renom, professor-researcher at ICREA, doubly affiliated with the CRG and the CNAG-CRG and whose research underpins GENIGMA. “However, the lack of reference maps of the genome limits current scientific progress. It’s like asking people to navigate modern cities using maps from the past. With the help of others, we can update these maps, allowing us to make rapid progress in breast cancer research.

Professor Marti-Renom’s research group has developed methods to create reference genomic maps by visualizing the genome in three-dimensional space. However, it requires a lot of time and resources to train artificial intelligence, as well as vast computing power.

The researchers started GENIGMA because they believe player-generated data could be a more efficient method of updating benchmark maps compared to using AI alone. Players’ “collective intelligence” can also provide creative solutions in ways that AI might not be able to provide.

To play GENIGMA, players must solve a puzzle involving a chain of blocks of different colors and shapes. Each string represents a genetic sequence in the cancer cell line, and the way players arrange the blocks is a potential solution to the location of the genes.

Players must rearrange the blocks in order to achieve the highest possible score. The higher the number of players and high scores, the more likely the researchers have found the correct sequence for that particular location in the reference map.

“Anyone with a smartphone from anywhere in the world can download GENIGMA for free and make a direct contribution to research, putting their logic and dexterity at the service of science”, says Elisabetta Broglio, citizen science facilitator at the CRG. “GENIGMA will analyze the solutions provided by players as a collective and not as individuals, and leverage creative solutions that are impossible to find with deterministic algorithms.”

GENIGMA gameplay

GENIGMA gameplay image on a smartphone. Credit: CRG/CNAG-CRG

The first genome reference map the researchers will attempt to solve concerns the breast cancer cell line T-47D, one of the most commonly used resources in cancer research. The GENIGMA research team estimates that 30,000 players solving an average of 50 games each would generate enough data to reveal the reference map of the 20,000 genes of this breast cancer cell line.

The game launched on January 27, 2022, with a three-month campaign – the #GenigmaChallenge. Every week on Monday for a total of three months, the GENIGMA team will introduce new genome fragments from the T-47D cell line for players to arrange. The first genome fragments to be rearranged come from chromosome 17, which contains a high number of genes linked to breast cancer. This includes BRCA1, for which mutations have been linked to approximately 40% of hereditary breast cancers.

GENIGMA was developed over two and a half years, involving more than 500 people through 13 workshops. The game was designed and tested by a diverse group of people from different backgrounds, including researchers, students, teachers, artists, healthcare professionals, bioethicists, journalists, patient organization representatives , artists and game developers.

According to Oriol Ripoll, creative at JOCS al SEGON and coordinator of GENIGMA’s game design team, “Science can often seem out of reach for most people, which is why being able to pick up your phone to play GENIGMA is so exciting. Not only will you be able to combine the universal appeal and popularity of video games to help advance medical research, but you will also learn more about science.

GENIGMA is funded by ORION, a 4-year project that received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under grant agreement no. 741527. This project responds to the call Horizon 2020 for “SwafS-04-2016” within the framework of science with and for the work program of the company. GENIGMA is also the result of a collaboration with the ‘Fondazione ANT Italia Onlus’ and Arima Genomics.