A collaboration project between Cancer Research UK and the Citizen Science Alliance is focusing on creating a new mobile game app that could accelerate cures for cancer.

The new and exciting idea will let people use their smartphones to play a fun game that will also provide important scientific data for researchers.

A total of forty computer programmers, gamers, and specialists will participate in an event called ‘GameJam’ and use Cancer Research UK’s raw gene data to develop a game format, which has a working title ‘GeneRun’.

The GameJam event (March 1-3) aims to find new, innovative ways for the general public to help analyze gene data. After the event, an agency will use the game format and fully develop it for launch sometime this summer.

Cancer Research UK is currently investing in research that aims to identify the genetic faults that cause cancer, which could help drive newer and more effective ways to diagnose and treat patients.

However, the research requires huge amounts of information to be analyzed that could provide clues as to the causes and drivers of cancer. These data must be analyzed by people rather than computers – people can often detect things that computers aren’t capable of.

A group of trained scientists is currently analyzing all the data, but it could take years and years to complete, if people around the world collectively contribute as well, it could significantly speed up the research – saving lives faster.

The senior group leader at 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.”

They added:

“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 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 second game that the charity has been involved in with the Citizen Science Alliance; the first game, called Cell Slider, focused on analyzing 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.”

This is an excellent example of the UK’s innovative means of using the internet to push forward in cancer research.

According to George Freeman MP, life science adviser to the Government: “The UK is leading the way in health research and I know from my own experience in biomedical research how important it is to stay ahead of the game and to create new partnerships.”

Philip Su, engineering site director of Facebook London, believes that one of the best ways to solve a problem is to bring together a group of smart people to try and ‘hack’ a solution. This is valid not only in software engineering, he said, but also in life sciences.

‘Cell Slider’ has already demonstrated the effectiveness of using games on the Internet to let citizens participate in analyzing clinical trial data.

Theo Bertram, public policy manager at Google, said: “We think this is a great initiative and we are very excited to be able to support this project. It’s encouraging to see how technology and the collective power of people across the globe can help to find new ways to accelerate cures for cancer.”

Dr Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, concluded: “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. And this exciting event will provide a channel to help our scientists discover new genetic drivers of cancer that would otherwise take years to identify.”

Amazon Web Services is going to provide the technology on which the final version of GameJam will be hosted. It is also going to supply participants with technology resources and expertise to help them start off, free of charge, during the development of their GeneRun games.

Facebook UK’s engineering team will be supporting GameJam with expertise.

Google will provide financing, as well as hosting the Hackathon at Campus.

Another game, called Phylo, was developed by a team of bioinformaticians at McGill University, which helps contribute to genetic research, allowing players to even choose which genetic disease they would like to decode.

Written by Joseph Nordqvist