By Jennifer Ann Beswick, Cancer Research UK    August 19, 2014 

Data analysis poses a tremendous challenge for scientists today. While technology has vastly expanded our capacity for collecting massive amounts of information, our ability to translate those mountains of data into practical knowledge has remained quite limited. Scientists at Cancer Research UK (CRUK) recently pioneered some innovative methods for expediting the quest for a cure. In fact, the results of CRUK’s 2013 GameJam were so impressive that the event may very well establish a radically new model for disease research — one in which the public plays a crucial role in the scientific process.

Gamification has certainly reached new levels. At first glance, Play to Cure: Genes in Space might not appear to be a game designed to aid advances in cancer research. However, it is hoped that gamers will help scientists find vital new clues in the fight against cancer.

What Was GameJam? 

Held in March 2013, Cancer Research UK’s GameJam brought together a community of 55 developers from Facebook, Google, and Amazon to participate in a 48-hour hackathon, along with a team of scientists and academics. Their challenge: to create an entertaining video game, wherein those who played actually conducted valuable data analysis that would otherwise take researchers many tedious hours to complete. 

At the end of the weekend, the teams had successfully created 12 game prototypes. Of those, a mobile app called Play to Cure: Genes in Space was chosen as the winner. After about a year of further refinement, it was recently released in the Apple Store and on Google Play, and now gamers around the world are helping cancer researchers advance their work by leaps and bounds. 

Play to Cure: Genes in Space

You may be wondering how the game works? On the face of it,Play to Cure: Genes in Space is a Star Wars-esque flight through space, dodging and zapping asteroids to collect the valuable and tradable substance Element Alpha. As the game progresses, you can upgrade your ship to become more powerful in your intergalactic mission. Players start at level 1 as a new recruit and can progress to level 50, becoming a galactic legend in the process. However, whilst flying through space and undertaking your gaming mission, you are also analysing the genetic data of thousands of tumours from breast cancer patients, which would otherwise take scientists a considerable amount of time to process.

In the game, whilst gamers chart their path, they specifically identify defects in DNA microarray data. Thus, as thousands of casual players dedicate countless hours to the fun game, they relieve scientists of a massive research burden. The information they help sort through helps researchers identify which genetic defects are most common amongst cancer patients, giving them new targets to study. 

The Power of Crowd

After experimenting unsuccessfully with various software solutions, researchers found that many types of data analysis are much more accurate when categorized by the human eye than by computer programs. Yet with limited personnel, all of whom are highly trained scientists, the time-consuming manual analysis proved a major setback to timely research. 

Because digital tools alone couldn’t solve the problem, researchers decided to use technology to bring together a massive group of global volunteers. Thus, the seed of Genes in Space was first planted when CRUK debuted an innovative crowd-sourcing platform called Cell Slider, which allows participants to donate their time (rather than money) to cancer research. The online platform teaches users to identify aspects of cancerous cells biopsied from real patients, then enables thousands of people to contribute in a tangible way to the search for a cure.

Now, having gamified the analytic process, they have taken their crowd-sourced research a step further. Not only do participants get the reward of knowing they are contributing time to a worthwhile cause, but they also have fun doing it. 

An Insider Look into The App

Cancer Research UK teamed up with Dundee-based agency Guerilla Tea to enable the data to be translated into the Genes in Spacegame, essentially as a map. The peaks and troughs on the DNA readouts correspond to mountains and valleys on the game. As gamers navigate their spaceship over the various terrains, the locus of the journey is mapped. So whenever someone navigates a mountain a peak is identified on the DNA readout and vice-versa for valleys and troughs. By having a large number of users continually downloading and playing the game, scientists are effectively having the information read through at a much faster rate.

The idea comes from what is known as “citizen science.” Through Cell Slider, thousands of users across the globe were able to analyse tumor samples within 3 months, reducing the time it took scientists from 18 months. Using the information produced in theGenes in Space game by one gamer may be inaccurate; however when taking the same information as read by several gamers, the validity is much improved, and patterns efficiently identified.

Since its launch, the app has been downloaded over 100,000 times from the Google store and ITunes, to mixed reviews. The game app has been subsequently upgraded due to consumer demand and is proving important in the fight against cancer. Many of the reviews show similar feedback; there is certainly room to improve the nature of the gameplay-ability.

In a time when technology is connecting us in unprecedented ways, this model is an inspiring example of how modern app development can help us harness the massive potential of our global society. Humans have the power and skills to solve some of the direst threats we face today. But only by working together can we aggregate the resources and brainpower needed to make this world a better place