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Minecraft Players Are Helping SMU Researchers Find Better Cancer-Fighting Drugs

Doctoral student Lauren Ammerman with Corey Clark, deputy director of research at SMU Guildhall.

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.

Interview Highlights

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.

On how hard it is to find new drugs

Wise: Discovering a molecule that has an effect in a biological system like this is the first step. In the last three years or so, we've probably found 20 different molecules that positively affect this problem. Getting those drug-like molecules — they're not yet drugs — to the point where they could be entered in a clinic is difficult. The success rates of molecules that enter such a program and actually end up in people are maybe between 1 and 5 percent.

We’ve identified some really good compounds that we believe we can develop to be pharmaceutical-like compounds that we can put into animals and eventually, people. As I said before, maybe 1 percent of these molecules can make it to humans. That means at the beginning you need 100 of them. Finding those 100 starting molecules with what we’ve learned from Minecraft is going to be a really big deal to us.

Interview responses have been edited lightly for clarity and length.

Justin Martin is KERA’s local host of All Things Considered, anchoring afternoon newscasts for KERA 90.1. Justin grew up in Mannheim, Germany, and avidly listened to the Voice of America and National Public Radio whenever stateside. He graduated from the American Broadcasting School, and further polished his skills with radio veteran Kris Anderson of the Mighty 690 fame, a 50,000 watt border-blaster operating out of Tijuana, Mexico. Justin has worked as holiday anchor for the USA Radio Network, serving the U.S. Armed Forces Network. He’s also hosted, produced, and engineered several shows, including the Southern Gospel Jubilee on 660 KSKY.