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Chester County Press

Biomedical researchers try out new mobile game about HIV at Camp Dreamcatcher

08/29/2017 02:43PM ● By Steven Hoffman

A team of Drexel University College of Medicine researchers developed a mobile game called CD4 Hunter that communicates the complex science associated with HIV and AIDS. On Aug. 24, some of the researchers visited Camp Dreamcatcher to share the game with the children and teens at the camp, hoping to get some valuable feedback from the youngsters.

In the game, players enter the bloodstream as a human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) particle. The goal is to hunt for and infect CD4 T cells and white blood cells of the adaptive immune system. The game mimics the first step of the complex and dynamic HIV replication cycle, known as binding and entry.

One one level, the game is intended to be a teaching tool that could be used to teach science to medical school students. On another level, the game is just supposed to be enjoyable for players of all ages.

Carla Brown, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at the Drexel University College of Medicine's Department of Microbiology and Immunology, said that the game was designed to be simple to use so that players of all ages can enjoy it.

“If you've played Candy Crush, you can play this game,” she said, explaining that the game took about a year to design and develop.

CD4 Hunter is the result of an interdisciplinary team effort that was funded by the Drexel University College of Medicine's Department of Microbiology and Immunology, the Office of the Provost and the Steinbright Career Development Center.

Brown is the game designer. Dr. Sandra Hartmann, MD, PhD, an assistant professor at Drexel University College of Medicine, served as the project director. Vincent Mills and Andrew Bishop, both undergraduates in the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, were members of the game development team. Brian Wigdahl, PhD, a professor and chair in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology and director of the Institute for Molecular Medicine and Infectious Disease at Drexel, also played a key role. Mary Anne Comunale, EdD, MS, a research instructor in the Department of Microbiology & Immunology at Drexel University College of Medicine, is taking the lead on research.

Comunale, who was part of the team that visited Camp Dreamcatcher, said that they are now doing research to evaluate how well the game achieves its goals.

According to Brown, CD4 Hunter is part of an emerging and exciting trend where mobile games can be utilized to teach people scientific concepts.

Comunale added that such educational tools can be very useful, especially for children because they are so savvy when it comes to computers and games. It only makes sense, she said, to blend games and science.

Brown said that she first learned about Camp Dreamcatcher earlier this year at a Philadelphia Fight community health centers event that focused on AIDS Education Month. She immediately saw an opportunity to include Camp Dreamcatcher in the research on the game.

Emmalee Bierly, a program director and therapist at Camp Dreamcatcher, said that it was great to have the youngsters at camp be involved with the process of this educational tool being developed.

Patty Hillkirk, the executive director and founder of Camp Dreamcatcher, said that she was proud to host the team from the Drexel University College of Medicine. The game could be a real benefit for people who are coping with HIV or AIDS.

“CD4 Hunter provides tools that can have many positive effects,” Hillkirk said. "For HIV or AIDS impacted youth, it educates and further takes their disease out of the shadows and treats a serious subject with respect, and in a way that kids can better relate to. For the broader audience, hopefully it engenders from the game a desire to learn more about HIV and AIDS and separate fact from fiction. I am thrilled to have this opportunity to collaborate with the Drexel College of Medicine.”

The game is already available to download from iTunes and the Google Play app store, even as the designers are hard at work to improve it for the next version.

“That's the reality of game design,” Brown said. “We're excited to see where the game can go.”