T Cells Attack: A Computer Game in Which You Fight Cancer

Known for its innovative cancer therapies, Genentech, a leading biopharmaceutical company, has an ongoing project that is fun and a bit unconventional—a new computer game called "T Cells Attack".

The game's backdrop is the human immune system and you get to zap all the hidden cancer cells. T Cells Attack is neither intended to instruct people on the nuances of cancer immunology nor does it attempt to accurately reflect the current state of scientific knowledge in all its precision or ambiguity.

Rather, the game is intended to be fun and raise awareness.

"This game is part of our overarching goal to make science fun and approachable—gaming is a great way to do it," says Holli Kolkey, Associate Director, Corporate Relations at Genentech. "Essentially what we are doing is teaching the body to attack cancer cells in circumstances where the immune system can’t tell the difference between healthy cells and cancer cells," she says.

Nicholas Waton, Senior Manager of Digital and Brand Communications at Genentech, notes that this is just the start of an ongoing project. "We have plans to cover other steps of the cycle—step 2 and 3, for instance," says Waton. And by steps, he is referring to the seven steps of the cancer-immunity cycle—  the science upon which the game is built.

In T Cells Attack, speed matters too. "There is a speed element being introduced...if you have been very fast, you will get extra points for this," adds Waton.

And the future promises more updates and further development. "Eventually, there will be multiple mini-games with links to the science as well," says Waton, also noting that the group will soon transition to an app with a social leaderbord.

Setting the Stage: The Cancer Immunity Cycle

The game involves an Angry Birds-style slingshot in the form of a bio-engineered antibody—the basis for many modern bio-pharmaceuticals.

And there is a shooting gallery full of potentially cancerous cells. Potentially cancerous is the operative phrase.

T cells represent the immune system’s army. Some cancer cells, however, have evolved ways of hiding from the immune system. The goal of cancer immunotherapy is to activate the body’s own immune system in order to recognize and destroy cancer cells.

In this scenario, all cells in the shooting gallery look healthy to the immune system at the start and it’s up to you and the antibody to review the sick cells and decloak them so that the immune system can attack. This attack by T cells is what happens at the 7th step of the cancer-immunity cycle.

Playing the Game

You and the monoclonal antibodyor the slingshot in this game, target potential cancer cells to expose them or flush them out for further immune targeting and destruction by effector cells such as cytotoxic T-cells. In this game, you can help T cells seek and destroy cancer cells that are hiding out in the middle of normal cells by.

  • Using your antibody/slingshot
  • Calling on T-cell reinforcements when needed

The major players in the game include:

  • Orange cells wearing small smiles: Since cancer cells are hidden, in this game you never really know whether you are dealing with healthy cells or cancer cells upfront until you start hurling antibodies. The truly healthy, green smiley faces reveal themselves only after a cycle of immune targeting with your slingshot. Some of the orange cells are rapidly dividing; be sure to target these because they are more likely to be cancerous.
  • Green cells with large smiles are healthy and cancer-free. They are not revealed at first but rounds of antibodies and T-cell activity uncloak them.
  • Grey frowning cells are cancerous.
  • Brown frowning cells are cancer cells being killed by the immune team.
  • T cells are “blue police officers” with yellow stars on their caps—unless you activate them by hurling antibodies in which case the stars briefly turn red as they work to seek and destroy the targeted cells.

A few key principles to keep in mind:

  • You can set the difficulty to easy but the levels keep advancing to become more difficult no matter your settings at first.
  • The novice player quickly learns that, in this particular gaming scenario, if you are too concerned with sparing what might be normal like healthy cells, you will soon lose the game to the hidden cancer cells.
  • To keep the cell division under control, you have to shoot your antibodies into the collection of cells. Prioritize those orange cells you see dividing before your very eyes since they have a higher chance of being the cancer cells. This will only get you so far. You also need to let the T cells do their jobs.
  • If you don’t have enough T cells in a particular area of the rapidly dividing cells, you are going to want to call on reinforcements because the antibodies won’t be as effective in those patches of cells that lack the blue T cells.  
  • As the game advances, it seems like you can shoot antibodies all you want and still lose. But if you can get your T cells in all the right places, the outcome is more hopeful.
  • Don’t fall behind. If you miss a rapidly dividing cell, its daughter cells will also rapidly divide. Before you know it, you have multiple enlarging zones upon which to focus your slingshot and the cell division outpaces your ability to shoot.
  • As in real life, this game can be won. When you eliminate all of the cancerous and possibly cancerous cells and are left with only healthy cells, you win—no matter where you are in the game clock. That said, unhealthy cells have a sneaky way of arising spontaneously!

Continue Reading