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Teaching the next generation to crack the enigma of cancer

by Sam Godfrey | Analysis

23 February 2015

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An Enigma machine

It’s probably caught your attention: the cream of showbiz royalty donned their bow ties and ball gowns last night, spending ages practising the perfect ‘selfie’ face in preparation for the glitz and glamour of the annual Academy Awards (or ‘Oscars’ to their friends).

And this year, science was in the running for an Oscar or three. Two of the prime contenders were the ‘Theory of Everything’ and ‘The Imitation Game’, films about two of the UK’s finest scientific minds: Stephen Hawking and Alan Turing. And each film picked up an award on the night.

The inner workings of an Enigma machine

The inner workings of an Enigma machine

Turing, expertly portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in ‘The Imitation Game’, was an outstanding mathematician whose insights ultimately deciphered the highly complex and ‘unbreakable’ Nazi Enigma code. And this achievement changed the world.

Not only did it prove to be a turning point in the allied war effort, but it also heralded the dawn of the computer age.

Computers have revolutionised our lives. Cars, planes, traffic lights adapt to changes in their surroundings instantly, making our lives that little bit easier. The latest refrigerators can even order milk when’re running low.

And of course, advances in computing have accelerated our understanding of cancer. So it’s never too early to get to grips with how computers help researchers do their job. And as the video above shows, and as we’ll discuss below, our scientists are teaching school children about their work and giving them a chance to crack the DNA code.

Biological cryptogrophy

Increasingly, modern cancer research is turning into a form of code-breaking. Cancer is a disease of our DNA – the molecule that contains all the instructions we need to be us. It is written using a string of four chemicals, represented by the letters A, T, C and G, and this code stands at more than three billion ‘letters’ long. And it’s faults in this code that lead to cancer.

Cracking cancer’s code isn’t easy. A key factor in cracking Enigma was the fact that the allies already understood German. But with cancer, we’re still learning the language.

Despite the fact that we’re still by no means fluent in ‘DNA’, we’re making progress, piecing together a basic phrase book, and moving on to more sophisticated sentences. International projects like The Cancer Genome Atlas and the International Cancer Genome Consortium are collating the DNA code from thousands of cancer patients.

And this will ultimately improve how we detect and treat the disease. Thanks to our progress in understanding cancer, Cancer Research UK can now fund studies like the Lung Matrix Trial and TRACERx, to convert our knowledge of cancer’s DNA code into real benefits for patients.

Cracking cancer’s code in the classroom

The more we learn about the genetics of cancer, the more biology depends on computers. Future scientists must be fluent not just in biology, but also computer programming or coding.

Thankfully, there’s a new generation following in the Turing’s footsteps. A group of bright young 11-14 years olds from the Maria Fidelis and Queen Elizabeth’s Schools in London have been working with scientists from our London Research Institute, learning to build a computer programme that can decipher the DNA code.

Watch how our scientists are helping school children decode cancer DNA on YouTube

Watch how our scientists are helping school children decode cancer DNA on YouTube

While Turing used his first-generation computer, called the Bombe, to help decipher the enigma code, these students have been using inexpensive credit card-sized computers called Raspberry Pis to unlock DNA’s secrets and search for potential cancer mutations.

As you can see in the video at the top of this post, thanks to the enthusiastic expertise of our scientists, the students learned how to write code-breaking programs that could scan sections of the BRCA1 gene (associated with breast cancer), to spot whether the gene was a healthy or a faulty version.

For their programmes to work, the students used a DNA ‘codebook’ to help decrypt the puzzling string of chemical ‘letters’ that our genes are made of.

The order of letters in our genes determines the proteins our bodies make. And when these letters get scrambled (causing a mutation in our genes), cancer can develop.

But searching manually for mistakes in genes is laborious. Even if a gene was just 100 DNA letters, decoding by hand would take around five minutes. Given that a single human genome contains approximately three billion base pairs, it would take one person around 285 years to do the whole thing.

But with computer programmes like those that the students are learning to write, this is done in hours helping scientists unlock more of cancer’s secrets than ever before.

A beautiful mind

In just a few short years, one brilliant mind helped free Europe from tyranny and ignited the age of computers. Fast-forward 60 years and we live in an unrecognisable world; the phone in your pocket has more computing power than Turing could have believed possible.

Yet even 60 years after his death, his ideas are helping us take on cancer. It is no coincidence that as some of our scientists move into the brand new Francis Crick Institute (a state-of-the-art super-lab near King’s Cross London), they will be right next door to Google and the future Alan Turing Centre for Data science, ready to embrace this new era of science.

Alan Turing’s legacy could not be plainer.

Sam Godfrey, science communications manager at Cancer Research UK and Dr Ivana Petrovska, science outreach lead from Cancer Research UK

The DNA Code Breaking Project is accredited by the British Science Association and is part of the CREST Awards scheme aimed at Key Stage 3 and 4 students. For teachers who have participated in the project, it has been part of their continued professional development.


Enigma rotor image from Flickr, under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0