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Press to continue: How video game tech is changing cancer treatment

Published: Monday, June 30 2014 4:15 a.m. MDT

Editor's note: This is the second story in a two-part series on how video games are changing medical treatment. Read the first part here.

At an age when most kids start school and learn to ride bikes, Nico Poux was fighting for his life. Diagnosed with leukemia at age 6, Poux has battled cancer the bulk of his life.

“What I remember is a lot of time spent in the hospital,” Poux, now 15, recalled. While in the hospital, he played and helped develop a video game designed specifically for childhood cancer patients, aptly called "Re-Mission." The game was developed by HopeLab, a California-based nonprofit founded in 2001 whose goal is to pair technology and research with innovative health solutions.

Kids playing "Re-Mission" learn how important their treatment is through the game, in which the player blasts cancer cells with a chemo gun — equipped with different drugs that kids can choose depending on their treatment plan. Poux said the game empowered him when he felt helpless.

“Boredom just makes you feel more terrible about the situation,” Poux said. “If you’re distracted, it takes away some of the mental effort.”

That’s exactly what the game is designed to do, says Richard Tate of HopeLab.

“The game makes them feel powerful and capable,” Tate said. “The challenge is not that we don’t have effective treatments. The challenge is getting them to adhere to treatment.”

"Re-Mission" is just one example of how video games and the technology behind them are changing the landscape of cancer treatment. While playing games can help kids like Poux learn and understand their illness, related technology may also someday help those same kids beat cancer dramatically faster.

Seeing cancer more clearly

Medical engineer and physicist Dr. Steven Jiang doesn’t play video games, but he and his team at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center certainly respect the technology.

Jiang and his team use the same 3D graphics processing units, or GPUs, that millions of gamers put into their PCs to make the battlefields of “Call of Duty” more realistic — but Jiang uses them to make different images come into sharper focus: cancer cells.

“The computer on your desk is as powerful as the best super computer five years ago,” Jiang said.

To explain how GPUs improve chemotherapy, Jiang described the current process of oncology: A patient is diagnosed and an individualized radiation dose is calculated based on a variety of factors, including the size of the cancer growth. This process can take days or weeks, with hospitals using multiple computers.

“For one patient, calculating an individual treatment can take about 70 hours if you use a conventional computer. I’ve seen hospitals that use 30 computers together and it still takes a few hours,” Jiang said. “Now, we can do it in seconds or minutes.”

That means, Jiang says, that eventually hospitals could treat patients the same day they are diagnosed and update the treatment by imaging the cells after treatment, which means less damage to surrounding healthy tissue if a growth shrinks.

“Right now, we have no way to update a treatment plan. We don’t have time to do that. To make an individual treatment plan, you have to know a lot about [a cancerous cell or growth],” Jiang said. “Now we can do all the planning in seconds instead of hours or days, and then develop a new treatment plan based on the geometry from that day.”

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