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Mobile cancer game to accelerate search for a cure

Cancer Research UK will this year launch game that will harness 'citizen science'

UK charity Cancer Research UK will later this year launch a mobile biomedical data game that it hopes will speed up its efforts to find a cure for cancer.

Explaining its plans at yesterday's Think Digital event, held in London by Digitas Health, the charity's citizen science project lead Amy Carton said the focus was on producing a “damn good game”.

“As the same time as playing that game, just coincidently, you will be helping up to accelerate cures for cancer, because it is going to be based on our gene data – you won't see the gene data, you'll just be playing a game.”

The charity is the second biggest funder of cancer research in the world after the US government but it faces a “deluge of data”.

“We believe that there are breakthroughs within our datasets that are going to lead to cures for cancer. But we have petabytes upon terabytes of data sitting in virtual libraries that need our attention.

“The peculiar thing about this data is that it needs the interaction of a human being. Our eyes, and the pattern recognition that we have, are far superior to any computer - because we cannot set up our computers and algorithms to look for things we do not know are there,” Carton told Think Digital.

So that charity took the bold decision to “punch into the game market” in order to get the eyes of the world on its data through 'citizen science', but doing this required an acknowledgement from the charity. “We're not a tech company, we do science and we do it well,” Carton said. 

So Cancer Research UK invited the likes of Google, Facebook and Amazon Web Services to take part in a weekend 'hackathon', or GameJam, in March 2013 to help design and develop a mobile game.

“We gave these guys our data and said, 'we don't just want you to wrap it up in an engaging way, we don't want you to 'gamify' it, we want you to abstract that data and make a game.”

It builds on Cancer Research UK's first foray into citizen science, which last year saw the launch of Cell Slider, a simple game based on snap that presents users with real images of tumour samples for analysis that has so far analysed over 1.5 million images.

Despite being given a soft-launch, Cell Slider allowed Cancer Research UK to complete a data set within the game's three months that would ordinarily taken its scientists 18 months to do, echoing pharma's experience with crowd-sourced research.

“We really, fundamentally believe that we're onto something there,” Carton said, adding that speed targets had been surpassed and accuracy targets were looking on course to be hit too.

So, this year the charity's GameJam saw 55 'hackers', computer programmers, gamers, graphic designers and other specialists collaborate over a weekend to produce 12 prototype mobile games.

“We are committed to launching one of these games at the end of this year. We might launch and not even tell you that it's a Cancer Research UK game, we might tell you that next year when we've made a discovery,” Carton said.

She concluded: “We have 11 other gaming mechanisms we would like to deploy, but to do that we need some help. So we are looking for funders, collaborators and partners that can come and help us realise our ambitions, to not only look at cancer data in the UK but at cancer data in the world. And then not only cancer data, but all biomedical data.”

14th June 2013

From: Research

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