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  • Game for Change

May 2012

With an estimated 4 billion cell phones and an equally staggering number of PCs and tablets in use around the world today, there is no denying the impact of these technologies on our lives. Their ubiquitous presence has given rise to crowd-sourcing: organizations and agencies tapping into the ideas and expertise of interested persons everywhere to develop products, solve problems, change minds, raise money and much, much more.

Online gaming – from World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings, to Farmville, Café World and all the other adventures one can share online with friends and strangers – has created global communities of like-minded individuals and a revolution in how we get things done.

Now, crowd-sourcing and gaming are coming together to solve biomedical challenges. Certain gamer skills have captured the attention of researchers around the world, who are starting to put them to work building RNA molecules, folding proteins and identifying malaria-infected cells., launched by researchers at Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (UPM) on World Malaria Day (April 25), is a proof-of-concept game that asks players to “tag malaria parasites in digitized images of blood smears … with the aim of testing collaborative malaria tele-diagnosis techniques,” according to a report on UPM Channel. The report called MalariaSpot the “first ever crowd-sourced medical image diagnosis campaign.”

In the introduction to her 2011 book Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, game developer Jane McGonigal wrote, “Today, I look forward and I see a future in which games once again are explicitly designed to improve quality of life, to prevent suffering, and to create real, widespread happiness.” I’m guessing she was not speaking specifically about gamers identifying malaria in human blood cells, but her words seem prescient. “In short,” she wrote, “I foresee games that augment our most essential human capabilities – to be happy, resilient, creative – and empower us to change the world in meaningful ways.”

Gaming is on the mind of Aydogan Ozcan of the UCLA electrical engineering department’s bio- and nanophotonics laboratory, who has gained recognition in recent years for developing a lensless microscope for telemedicine. Ozcan delivered a paper, “New imaging and sensing architecture for telemedicine and global healthcare,” at SPIE Defense, Security and Sensing last month in Baltimore, describing a holographic imaging and diagnostic modality with improved light-collection efficiency durable enough for field use. He said the platform “may provide an important tool set for telemedicine-based cytometry and diagnostics applications, especially in resource-poor settings for various global health problems such as malaria, HIV and tuberculosis.” While the device itself was quite interesting, what he said about gamers really grabbed our attention.

There is so much data that can and will be collected by cell phones today and in the near future, he said, that the short-term challenge will be analyzing it all. He said that through crowd-sourced games, “The gaming community will help us tackle this data.” As with the MalariaSpot project, Ozcan also identified malaria as one illness that could be diagnosed in this fashion by gamers after brief, simple training to pick out infected cells.

From x-rays to light microscopes to cell phone cameras, there is no denying that biomedical imaging has changed dramatically since Wilhelm Röntgen put a name to a newly discovered ray. In this issue, we examine advances in spectroscopy and microscopy.

“Improving Lives Through Spectroscopic Analysis,” by BioPhotonics features editor Lynn Savage, explains how noninvasive spectroscopy is aiding clinicians in the treatment of brain trauma, cancer and more. In this feature, beginning on page 38, proponents of two types of spectroscopic methods for determining blood oxygenation share their views on the current state of the art as well as its future.

Authors Veronika Mueller and Christian Eggeling of the Max Planck Institute, Håkan Karlsson of Cobolt AB, and Dag von Gegerfelt of von Gegerfelt Photonics believe that continuous-wave diode-pumped solid-state (DPSS) lasers make stimulated emission depletion (STED) microscopy more practical. In an article beginning on page 30, they explain that, until now, STED microscopy typically has been realized with the use of rather large and complex laser systems. But a setup using a compact and low-noise 0.5-W, 660-nm, single-frequency continuous-wave diode-pumped solid-state laser significantly reduces size, complexity and costs while providing the same accuracy as a standard STED microscope.

In the article “Fresh Ways to Shoot Faster Pictures,” beginning on page 26, Lynn Savage explains how two-photon excited fluorescence and second-harmonic-generation microscopy, in particular, have overtaken even stalwart techniques such as confocal laser scanning microscopy because they reduce the amount of photobleaching endured by the key fluorophores used to illuminate targets such as cell components.

Enjoy the issue. Analyzing biomedical images seems like a great use of gamer skills and crowd-sourcing solutions to growing needs. How do you think the photonics community should tap into the online world to meet its grand challenges and change the world?

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