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Top technology gurus to design mobile phone game to speed up cancer cures

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by Cancer Research UK | News

1 March 2013

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Cancer Research UK is bringing together the charity’s world-leading scientists alongside 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 that anyone with a smart phone and five minutes to spare on a bus journey will be able to play an enjoyable game that will simultaneously investigate vital scientific data.  

The first step will be for forty ‘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 this weekend (March 1-3) is to identify new, engaging and scientifically robust ways for the public to help analyse gene data. And enjoy doing it.

An agency will build the game format developed through the GameJam, to be 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 need to be analysed.  Advances in technology mean our scientists can process data faster than ever to identify new patterns and faults in tumours. But 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.

This work is currently done by our trained scientists and can take years.  But 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 – hopefully saving lives faster.

Citizen science is a new way of including the public in our 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 tumour 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. 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. 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 and will be attended by games technology academics from City University London as well as a variety of technology experts. The first game, Cell SliderTM, launched as a Beta test in October 2012 to analyse 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.”

George Freeman MP, life science adviser to the Government, said: “This is a fantastic example of how the UK is harnessing the power of the internet for good, using cutting-edge technology to further research. I’m excited to see the first project Cell Slider this week, it’s brilliantly simple to use. 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. We look forward to seeing the fruits of this innovative exercise.”

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. We have a long running relationship with Cancer Research UK, and many other institutes, in using the cloud to help accelerate research. We look forward to seeing the final GeneRun games and supporting this project towards its ultimate goal.”

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 honour and we hope to help build on the incredible work done by Cancer Research UK.”

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, said: “Through our GameJam event we’re bringing together the cream of the UK’s technology specialists with our scientists as a collaborative force to accelerate cures for cancer outside the laboratory.

“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.”


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