Minecraft Players are helping researchers find better cancer drugs

SMU Guildhall deputy director Corey Clark, and biology professor John Wise are part of a team hoping to take advantage of the Minecraft's large user base in the search for better cancer-fighting drugs.

By Justin Martin

Minecraft is a popular video game that's sort of like virtual Lego. Players find and build stuff by themselves, or online with friends.

It's a simple formula that's attracted millions of fans — and Southern Methodist University professors.

Corey Clark, deputy director for research at SMU Guildhall, and John Wise, an associate professor of biological sciences, are part of a team hoping to take advantage of the game's large user base in the search for better cancer-fighting drugs.

On their quest to disable a biological pump

Wise: These pumps are normally in our bodies, protecting us from exposures to toxins. They keep bad things out of our cells, and that’s a really good thing. But this good thing gets perverted in cancers. A cancer cell will over-express these pumps, and it will eliminate cancer chemotherapeutics from the cancer cells, which causes the cancer to become resistant. So the goal of our research at SMU is to — with high-performance computing facilities and biochemistry — discover compounds that will temporarily turn these pumps off during cancer chemotherapies.

On how Minecraft is helping the search for treatment

Clark: Video games themselves are all about learning — how to play a level, how to progress through a game — and so what we want to do is use that human intuition piece and take datasets from medical problems, like the chemotherapeutic problem, and then integrate that into the game, so it's part of the natural game itself. Every time somebody does something in the game, it's actually helping in the science. The idea that you’re making a positive impact is something the players really enjoy.

We visualize the data problems in exactly the same format as Minecraft. So there are colored blocks and you’re moving some blocks around to try to find specific properties of these compounds that John’s working with to see which of those properties are the most important in being effective in the treatments. When they’re playing the game, all of the data returns to the back-end of the platform for analysis.

Read the rest of the story, listen to the interview, or watched a related video.