Play a Game and Possibly Cure Cancer

IEEE member helped create a nanotech game that kills cancer cells

18 December 2013

Photo: NanoDoc

Sabine Hauert Photo: Sabine Hauert

IEEE Member Sabine Hauert, a postdoctoral fellow at MIT, helped design an online game that turns anyone—not just doctors and bioengineers—into NanoDocs. By manipulating nanoparticles, the game lets players try various strategies to shrink and kill cancerous tumors. Inviting the public to participate, Hauert and her team are using crowd-sourcing to conduct cancer research that will help them discover new methods to test in the lab. Yes, that means you could be the one to discover a cure for cancer.

To learn more about Hauert and the NanoDoc game, read this Q&A. Or just click here to start playing.

The Institute: How did the idea for NanoDoc come about? And why did you feel a need to be involved? 

Sabine Hauert: As a swarm engineer, I study how systems self-organize. Nanoparticles come in different sizes, shapes, and materials. They can be coated with molecules that allow them to interact with cancer cells, or they can package a drug that can be delivered in a controlled manner.

Trillions of nanoparticles interact with millions of cells in a tumor. The challenge is to understand how the design of each individual nanoparticle impacts how they work together as a group. Our hope is that interest in nanomedicine among IEEE members and the desire to help in the fight against cancer will uncover original, creative, and efficient strategies that we haven’t thought of in the lab. 

TI: What role did you play in developing the game?

SH: NanoDoc is a project that’s been years in the making and is the result of a team effort. The expertise about nanomedicine comes from the research conducted by Sangeeta Bhatia, director of the Laboratory for Multiscale Regenerative Technologies at MIT. I worked on creating computer models that simulate how nanoparticles move and interact with tumors in collaboration with Radhika Nagpal and Spring Berman at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard, and Mieszko Lis at the laboratory of Srinivas Devadas at MIT. And MIT graduate student Justin Lo and several of the school’s undergraduate students also helped design the game.

TI: What have been some of the outcomes or successes since launching the game?

SH: In the first two months after launching in September, NanoDoc attracted nearly 15 000 visitors. More than 2600 signed up and tried out some 50 000 simulations. It's been exciting to see so much interest and feedback from the crowd. Many were able to solve complicated challenges, such as detecting a mutated cell using a cooperative two-nanoparticle strategy. Interestingly, this particular challenge required players to design treatments that were beyond what they had been taught during training, thereby showing the ability of the crowd to think outside the box and adapt to new challenges.

TI: What do you hope IEEE members playing the game will learn or take away from playing NanoDoc? 

SH: I hope they discover the surprising range of behaviors that can occur when trillions of nanoparticles work together, while also learning about nanomedicine and having fun. 

TI: So how do we play?

SH: Sign up with your email or social network account at The game has 24 training levels to teach players about nanomedicine techniques, such as dosing, diffusion, delivery, specificity, targeting, combination therapy, and using smart materials. (You’ll learn more about these terms during training.)

After completing the training, you’ll receive a NanoDoc certificate. You’ll then be presented with a challenge where you use what you’ve learned and put it to the test. The main goal is to design a new nanoparticle strategy to kill all tumor cells while keeping healthy cells alive. It’s a complex scenario. Each challenge will be scored, and top strategies will be announced on the NanoDoc website, and potentially tested in the lab. Good luck.

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