Ben Shapiro (PhD09) Develops Facebook Game to Improve Cancer Treatment

Ben Shapiro (PhD09) Develops Facebook Game to Improve Cancer Treatment

Ben Shapiro
Ben Shapiro (PhD09), a graduate of the Learning Sciences program at SESP, is developing a Facebook game intended to teach players about biomedical imaging and cancer treatment. The “social game,” called Anatomy Pro-Am, is also intended to allow players to improve the effectiveness of medical treatments.

“One major — and little discussed — problem in cancer treatment is the enormous rate of variation in how different radiologists interpret medical (e.g., CT and MRI) images, particularly in where they ‘see’ cancer in those images,” Shapiro says in his description of the project.

Anatomy Pro-Am is set up to focus on cancer patient cases, providing actual CT scans and case histories. First, the players interact with a virtual patient about their cancer diagnosis. Then the players work in teams to analyze the patient’s CT scan and indicate the extent of the tumor. Finally they attempt to aim radiation precisely at the tumor. 

Shapiro and his team recently received a $2.7 million National Science Foundation grant for the project. He is co-principal investigator with Kurt Squire, Susan Millar and Rich Halverson (PhD02), who is also a Northwestern University Learning Sciences alumnus.

Anatomy Pro-Am
The Anatomy Pro-Am project began when the director of medical devices at the Morgridge Institute, a biomedical research organization associated with the University of Wisconsin, asked Shapiro’s research group at Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery to design an environment where the public could help doctors to analyze CT data. Additional goals were to inform the public about cancer treatment and encourage young players to pursue medical careers.

Though the game is ultimately intended for the general public, including children, Shapiro’s team is working on a version focused specifically for use by medical students and residents. Shapiro describes it as “a community where medical students and residents help cancer specialists to improve their treatments” and adds that the lessons learned from working with medical professionals will later be translated into a version for for children, teens, and the general public.

Shapiro explains that the new prototype of Anatomy Pro-Am is “a Facebook game with real-time synchronous collaborative problem solving.” It allows players to work together to mark up medical images, seeing each other’s work in real time. Players form teams around patient cases by inviting friends from Facebook to join them. Then each team member submits an analysis of the patient’s case history and images and receives a score for accuracy. After players’ drawings are shown to one another, the group must work together to arrive at a group consensus about the case.

In a recent test of the game with medical students, the students reported being very engaged with the game and indicated that they would like the game to be part of their coursework. Earlier testing with middle school students found that the game increased participants’ knowledge, interest in medical careers, and especially boosted girls’ self confidence for future careers in medicine.

Plans for the upcoming year include use of the game in a course taught by University of Wisconsin radiology professor Lonie Salkowski. In that context, the researchers will be able to evaluate the game’s impact on student learning, engagement, and interest in radiology and radiation therapy as specialty careers, according to Shapiro. 

Find out more about the development of Anatomy Pro-Am at

By Marilyn Sherman
Last Modified: 9/13/11