Smartphone Game To Help Fight Cancer
March 1, 2013

Crowdsourcing A Way To Fight Cancer

Michael Harper for — Your Universe Online

If two heads are better than one, then 10,000 heads must be about as good as it gets. When tackling difficult and complex challenges, it is often recommended to take a team approach and share the burden with as many people as possible. Cancer Research UK (CRUK) is doing just that, sharing the load of looking for a cure for cancer amongst anyone with a smartphone. Teaming up with Amazon, Facebook and Google, CRUK has announced plans to develop a mobile game meant to outsource some of the more monotonous aspects of cancer research to “citizen scientists” willing to lend a few spare minutes. By taking a game approach to this complex problem, CRUK and the developers hope people will not only be excited about the work, but also spend more time playing the game, therefore speeding up the work necessary to find a cure. The team hopes to deliver the cancer fighting game this summer.

To create this game, 40 game developers, gamers, designers and “other specialists” will take part in what´s being called a “GameJam” this weekend. Much like a “Hackathon,” these people will gather for two days to look over CRUK´s raw cancer data and discuss possible ways to turn it into a mobile game.

As it turns out, for all the advanced technology being used to diagnose and identify cancer, much of the work is still a very analog process, requiring actual human beings to physically look for irregularities amongst an enormous pile of images. Were the work left up to the CRUK team, it could be many years before all the information could be properly analyzed. If this work were to be spread out, however, the research team could burn through this work quite quickly.

This idea isn´t new to CRUK. Last October, the organization rolled out a web-based exercise called Cell Slider. Participants are shown multiple slides of cells and asked to look for cells with irregular cores, tissue cells, and blood cells. If irregular cells are found, the system asks how many are present and how prominent they are. So far, CRUK claims some “tens of thousands” of people have already participated in this experiment, donating their free time to pour over the countless slides to look for irregular cells. “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 eighteen to three months,” exclaimed Dr. Harpal Kumar, CRUK´s chief executive, according to a press statement.

“[GameJam] will provide a channel to help our scientists discover new genetic drivers of cancer that would otherwise take years to identify.”

The new mobile game has been tentatively titled “GeneRun” and will rely on the technological prowess of the teams at Amazon, Google and Facebook.

"At Facebook we believe the best way to solve a problem is to bring smart people together to 'hack' a solution,” explained Philip SU, an engineering site director at Facebook´s London branch, speaking in a press statement.

“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] and we hope to help build on the incredible work done by Cancer Research UK."