Gaming to help beat cancer

All opinions my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk.

Plants versus Zombies 2: It’s About Time just came out.  My son spent a significant fraction of his weekend playing it on my iPad.  Okay, fine, I did too.  It’s a lot of fun, it challenges (but not too much) and it teaches you facts like, uh, like that Egyptian society in the past had a real fascination with pyramids.

So it’s not the most educational of games.

Which is why I was stoked to see the writeup of Re-Mission 2 in FierceBiotechIT.  This game takes elements of cancer treatment and places them in the context of a game that both educates patients undergoing cancer treatment as well as provides them a way to feel more in control of their situation.  Version 2 also builds on the impact of the first Re-Mission game, which showed success in improving adherence of patients to their treatment regimens.  Adherence is an important element of medical treatment and trying to make sure people take their medicines is an ongoing problem as we try to improve the efficiency of our healthcare systems.

In addition to behavioral metrics being changed by Re-Mission, functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) also showed that playing the game activated brain areas associated with motivation–again, tying gameplay to elements of adherence.  Some brain region activations also correlated with subject described positive and improved attitudes towards chemotherapy after gameplay. Continue reading

Internet access is a public (and private) health issue

All opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk.

If the Founding Fathers had lived today, they would surely have included internet access as one of our inalienable rights.  No, scratch that, because if they had lived today they would have used Google Docs to crowdsource the Declaration and the result would probably have been much more generic and middle of the road than it actually is.  Also, the Declaration would also have been limited it to about 500 words so readers wouldn’t get bored and surf somewhere else, and it would have had embedded GIFs. Preferably animated.

Still, the ability to access the internet and everything that comes with that is, if not a right, an incredible advantage.  So I was stunned when I read in the Seattle Times the other day that a significant fraction of people in the US–about twenty percent–have little to no internet connection, although those numbers have recently begun to creep up, presumably due to smartphone uptake.   But of course, being a good Seattlelite with a liberal bent, my next reaction was to say, well, let’s not rush to judgement or conclusions.  Maybe those people just don’t want the internet.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

Except the article goes on to say that while seniors generally did not feel they were missing anything, the majority of other respondents did feel they were missing something important and were being left behind because of their limited access.  So it’s not a life decision; it’s a question of cost, access and education. Continue reading

Enter citizen science

All opinions my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk.

h/t to @engagedethics for the heads up.

What do you think of when you think of citizen science?  Maybe dads buying Geek Dad and helping their kids build Lego robots that can manipulate a lego binary clock.  Maybe people tracking their health, thoughts, bodies, or other things in a really granular way in an effort to get at their quantified self.  Maybe hobbyists building and flying drones to sample atmospheric particle levels or track neighborhood traffic patterns.  Maybe patients groups banding together and funding research into cures, like the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation did with Kalydeco.  Maybe birdwatchers helping researchers track the migration patterns and populations of North American birds.  Maybe it’s something else, something you know about or have heard about or are planning to do right now.  Choose any or all of the above and you’re completely right.

Because citizen science, like a lot of movements these days, isn’t something legislated or codified or directed from on high. It’s something organic and crowd-based and bottom up, and it’s going on everywhere.

This is the world that’s being enabled by technology.  Whether it’s 3D printing, DIY Bio, computer modeling, personal monitoring or other kinds of tools, the barriers to experimentation are falling rapidly, and interest in figuring stuff out is on the rise.

The Citizens Science Association has been working on ways to support this new way of doing science.  They’ve been convening groups to look at topics like Governance, Conferences, ways to publish, and ways to communicate via other means.  There will be a webinar on September 17th to report on progress and it sounds like a worthwhile thing to listen to.  I haven’t been involved in the Association, but I’m planning to listen in.  Because technology keeps lowering the barriers to entry, and I’m really excited to see what comes out.

Internal and external motivation and the GSK big-bonuses-for-a-successful-drug initiative

All opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk.

The story in the Times of London about GSK’s new strategy for incentivizing its R&D teams by rewarding millions (yes millions) of dollars to deserving members of the team that gets a drug to approval has provoked a flurry of responses.   You can see posts from Derek Lowe, John LaMattina, and David Shaywitz that do a nice job of summarizing why this seems like a really bad idea in a lot of ways.  I don’t want to restate their arguments, other than to agree wholeheartedly that rewarding the lucky scientists will overall disincentivize researchers, will be difficult to administer fairly especially given the collaborative nature of biomedical research and the long, long timeframe for a drug to be approved, will have a great likelihood of upsetting and causing hard feelings in employees, and also misses the point that motivation is hardly what’s lacking in R&D these days.

I’d like to touch on that last point with respect to what I feel is particularly worrisome in this:  the complete externalization of motivation on the part of scientists, and the downstream consequences for ethical behavior and human health.  A recent survey commissioned by the Law Firm of Labaton Sucharow suggests that ethical standards on Wall Street are troubling.  About a quarter of respondents had observed or had firsthand knowledge of misconduct at their companies, and about a quarter also admitted they would engage in insider trading to make $10 Million if they thought they could get away with it.  If these GSK-type bonuses become the standard in BioPharma R&D, will we see a rise in unethical behavior on the part of scientists?  And could that lead to endangerment of human health, with clinical trials performed on compounds that are pushed farther than they should be because the R&D team is looking ahead to the possible prize?

I remember a mentor at Merck asking me after my first year how I liked my bonus.  I responded enthusiastically.  He nodded, smiled a  little and said, “Enjoy the feeling.  Because next year it won’t be the same.  It’ll just be something you expect.”  And he was right.  We talk about the perks of working for BioPharma, but there’s actually a cost to being in an environment that provides the kinds of lavish benefits we get in industry.  It can cause the personal source of motivation to shift from internal to external rewards.  Ultimately, for people who are creative, I think the best work is done when internal motivators are a strong part of the driving force–something Daniel Pink describes in his book Drive.  It’s why I think games work so well as a tool for getting things done.  They tap into internal motivating factors.  After all, no one (other than World of Warcraft Gold Farmers and the like) spends hours playing a game because they’re being paid to. We should not be trying to make an engaging, exciting pursuit like research into just something we do because it pays the bills.

Girls, G.A.M.E.S., STEM and fun

There’s a lot of serious work going into understanding fun.  And for good reason.  If a game is fun it can make a developer millions of dollars.  And if it’s not…  The element of fun is also the underlying concept behind the rise of gamification approaches in business.  You know that a concept has entered the mainstream when it gets satirized in Dilbert.   Companies are experimenting with adding game-like elements such as competition, leaderboards, interactive simulations, and other similar innovations to the workplace.  Since humans enjoy games and games act to engage peoples’ attention, the theory is game-like features (or outright games) will help companies be more efficient, train more effectively and even drive innovation.

And the key element is fun.  Something about the alchemy between the participants and the system has to work in the right way to trigger the sensation of pleasure and interest.  Without it, the leaderboard withers, participation lags (or worse, gets mandated which is a death knell for fun), and the investment doesn’t pay off.  There’s a nice post over at techcrunch (HT @geoffclapp) dissecting the concept of “hafta” versus “wanna,” which I think is one of they important elements underlying fun.

I’ve been thinking about this in the context of a recent initiative put forth by Northeastern University, in collaboration with the Institute for Systems Biology, the National Girls Collaborative Project, and others.  The very bold, very exciting goal is to build a large, public-private collaboration that will create games that interest girls in the science, technology, engineering and math fields (STEM), and that will increase the probability that girls continue into STEM careers.  That initiative, appropriately, is called Girls Advancing in Math, Engineering and Science (G.A.M.E.S.).

At this beginning stage, there are many clear challenges ahead and no one is denying that a lot of effort and coordination will have to take place for this to have a shot of working.  I attended their kickoff meeting and volunteered to be part of their researching efforts, because I’m interested in seeing how these games will be developed to try and make them appealing and fun for girls.  Already at the first meeting it was clear there will be some healthy debates about how to do that, whether girls really do get different kinds of fun from their games, and also how to prioritize fun versus more educational goals such as showing girls that research involves more failure than success and how that’s okay.

I expect it will be interesting. I expect to learn a lot about games and tools for measuring subjective information.  I hope others check it out and get involved.  It’ll be fun!  And if it isn’t we’ll want to figure out why, because that’s the kind of data this project really needs in order to be a success.

Coda:  For another take on the strange power/fascination of games, check out his New Yorker story about maybe the worst video game in the world–and how it’s led to over a million dollars in charity donations.  And yes, I realize this game is not in any way, shape or form, “fun.”