Nonprofit group takes its cue from online gaming to find innovative ways to speed medical research
The hyper-intense focus and problem-solving prowess of a person playing an online game can be a thing of beauty. But can that focus be harnessed to speed up the drug development process?
The folks at the The Myelin Repair Foundation (MRF) think maybe it can. That’s why, on Oct. 7 and Nov. 9, they’re inviting all comers to play a 24-hours-long clinical research-focused online video game.
They’re calling it “Breakthroughs to Cures,” an “idea-generating event,” and it works like this: Players register at www.info.breakthroughstocures.org. When the game starts, they are told they’re part of a special team that’s been invited to Washington, D.C., for a meeting with the president. Next, a fictitious commander in chief breaks the news to them that there’s a new neurological disease that’s spreading fast and has no cure. As many as 100 million people in the U.S. have already been infected and a national health crisis is afoot, he says, adding that he himself has tested positive for it, but is not symptomatic —for now.
“The president says, ‘No holds are barred here—we have to figure out a way to accelerate the pace of research,’” said Carol Menaker, director of communications for the MRF, a nonprofit medical research foundation based in Saratoga, Calif.
The players’ objective, then, is to work hard and fast to find a cure and make that cure available to a large population. After the president’s speech, gamers are set loose to share ideas about how to accelerate the pace of research using “cards” on which they can write up to 140 characters. Players offer ideas, then react to one anothers’ ideas. The more popular, innovative and workable ideas make their way to the top of the pile, from which prizes are awarded. To avoid sticky situations such as a known executive in the drug development industry disparaging a comment by another known executive, players can register anonymously.
“It’s not like playing a war game, and there are no avatars,” laughed Menaker.
Because the foundation is hoping the game will help flush out innovative new ways to improve research to benefit all disease areas, a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio is funding the development, promotion and running of the game. The estimated cost is $200,000, said Menaker.
“Due to misaligned incentives among and between those that fund, conduct, commercialize and regulate medical research, the number of new treatments and cures for many chronic and life-threatening diseases has not kept pace with the level of investment,” said Nancy Barrand, the Pioneer Portfolio’s senior program officer, adding that the Portfolio seeks ideas that break free of conventional thinking, often because they reframe and refocus problems and explore different paths to breakthroughs. The MRF’s gaming idea is right in line with that.
“Game play and social media are both powerful tools that we’re hoping will engage people from a wide variety of backgrounds to come up with creative solutions to one of health care’s most vexing problems – realizing a better health return for the money invested in research and development,” she said.
The concept came from the Institute for the Future, a forecasting group that has helped run similar games for an engineering-focused group and a chemical trade group. “Gaming could be the next tool for solving some of our most pressing real-world problems,” said the Institute’s game designer, creator and producer of the Breakthroughs to Cures events, Jane McGonigal, according to the MRF. “Those who play games have a sense of urgency and abandon when they are engaged in a game scenario. We have seen these behaviors in corporate strategic game play where there are real stakes. The game we are building for the MRF is designed to generate that sort of urgency and unleash creative ideas for finding ways to speed medical research.”
Once both games are completed, the MRF will publish what it has learned on its website. “In the end, we hope we’ll come away with four to six top-line ideas,” Menaker said. The events are designed to engage up to 300 individuals per game. So far, about 80 have registered to play. Many are from the NIH, the drug development industry or other disease-focused nonprofits, but Menaker said some electrical engineers have signed up, too, along with a librarian and a psychologist.
“The goal is to have people inside and outside the medical research enterprise represented,” Menaker explained. The MRF is just beginning to translate some promising compounds out the lab. Now is the time to ferret out ways to speed up clinical research, she said.