- App will reward players for spotting subtle patterns in research data
- It will mean people can investigate scientific data while playing a game
- They hope it will speed up the development of new cancer drugs
By EMMA INNES
Scientists from a British cancer charity are teaming up with technology gurus from Amazon, Facebook and Google to design and develop a mobile game aimed at speeding up the search for new cancer drugs.
The project, led by the charity Cancer Research UK, should mean that anyone with a smart phone and five minutes to spare will be able to investigate vital scientific data at the same time as playing a mobile game.
The app will rely on players spotting subtle patterns in data that automated systems often miss – by turning the process into a game.
The first step is for 40 computer programmers, gamers, graphic designers and other specialists to take part in a weekend ‘GameJam’ to turn the charity’s raw genetic data into a game format for future so-called ‘citizen scientists’.
‘We’re making great progress in understanding the genetic reasons cancer develops.
‘But the clues to why some drugs will work and some won’t are held in data which need to be analysed by the human eye – and this could take years,’ said Carlos Caldas at Cancer Research UK’s Cambridge Institute.
‘By harnessing the collective power of citizen scientists we’ll accelerate the discovery of new ways to diagnose and treat cancer much more precisely.’
Following the GameJam, which ran in London from March 1-3, an agency will build the game concept into reality and the team plans to launch it in mid 2013.
Cancer already kills more than 7.5 million people a year and the number of people with the disease worldwide is expected to surge by more than 75 per cent by 2030, according to the World Health Organisation’s cancer agency, the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
Cancer Research UK’s scientists are working hard to identify the genetic faults that drive cancer to try to find new ways of diagnosing and treating patients in a more targeted way based on their genetic profile and that of their tumours.
In a major international study on breast cancer genetics published last year, researchers said they are now able to classify the disease into 10 subtypes – a finding that could lead to more accurate and tailored treatment in future.
That study also found several completely new genes that drive breast cancer, offering potential targets for new types of drugs.
Yet this type of research generates colossal amounts of data that need to be analysed, Cancer Research UK said as it announced the gaming project.
While advances in technology mean scientists can process data faster than ever, much of it still needs to be analysed by people rather than machines.
‘The human eye can detect subtle changes that machines are not programmed to look for – leading to serendipitous discoveries providing clues to the causes and drivers of the disease,’ the charity said.
‘With the collective power of hundreds of thousands of people across the globe helping our scientists to analyse this data we could drastically speed up research.’
Philip Su, engineering site director of Facebook London said his company believes the best way to solve a problem ‘is to bring smart people together to ‘hack’ a solution.’
‘That approach is just as valid in the field of life sciences as it is in software engineering,’ he said.
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