Cancer Research UK is bringing together its world-leading scientists with technology gurus such as Amazon Web Services, Facebook and Google to design and develop a mobile game to accelerate cures for cancer.
This innovative idea means anyone with a smart phone and five minutes to spare will be able to play an enjoyable game that simultaneously will investigate vital scientific data.
The first step will be for 40 'hackers'—computer programmers, gamers, graphic designers and other specialists—to take part in a weekend 'GameJam' or hackathon, to turn Cancer Research UK's raw gene data into a game format, with a working title of GeneRun, for citizen scientists to play.
The aim of the 'GameJam' event in London is to identify new, engaging and scientifically robust ways for the public to help analyze gene data, and enjoy doing it. The game format developed through the GameJam then will be built and launched in summer 2013.
The charity is investing heavily in studies to discover the genetic faults driving cancer to find new ways to diagnose and treat patients in a more targeted way based on their genetic fingerprint.
But this research produces colossal amounts of data that must be analyzed. Advances in technology mean scientists can process data faster than ever to identify new patterns and faults in tumors. But much of it still needs to be analyzed 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.
This work currently is done by the group’s trained scientists and can take years. But the collective power of hundreds of thousands of people across the globe helping could drastically speed up research. Citizen science is a new way of including the public in scientific research outside the laboratory.
Professor Carlos Caldas, senior group leader at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, University of Cambridge, said, "Future cancer patients will receive treatment targeted to the genetic fingerprint of their tumor, and we hope this exciting project will bring forward the day this becomes a reality.”
"We're making great progress in understanding the genetic reasons cancer develops,” he added. “But the clues to why some drugs will work and some won't are held in data which need to be analyzed by the human eye—and this could take years. By harnessing the collective power of citizen scientists, we'll accelerate the discovery of new ways to diagnose and treat cancer much more precisely."
This is the charity's second collaboration with the Citizen Science Alliance. The first game, Cell Slider, launched as a Beta test in October 2012 to analyze archived cancer tissue samples.
Dr. Chris Lintott, chair, Citizen Science Alliance, said, "From our first collaboration, Cell Slider, we've already seen that there are tens of thousands of people happy to contribute their spare time to the cause of science. We hope the GameJam will let even more people join forces to help find cures for cancer."
Teresa Carlson, vice president of worldwide public sector, Amazon Web Services, said, "It is exciting to be part of this project and use cloud technology, and gamification of data, to help in driving research towards finding a cure for cancer." Amazon Web Services will be providing the technology platform on which the final game will be hosted, free, and also will supply participants with free technology resources and technology expertise to help them start their GeneRun games.
Philip Su, engineering site director of Facebook London, said, "At Facebook we believe 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. For us to be involved in something as important as the search for cures for cancer is a huge honor." Facebook UK is supplying expertise from Facebook's London-based engineering team.
Google will provide financial support and will host the hackathon at Campus, a co-working space in the heart of East London's Tech City, powered by Google.
Dr. Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK's chief executive, said, "By harnessing the collective force of the public, Cell Slider has already shown how we can dramatically reduce the analysis time for some of our clinical trials data from 18 to three months."