March 4, 2014
A clever gaming app called “Play To Cure: Genes in Space” is helping scientists with cancer research by having players analyze data from real patients. The mobile app is a potential game-changer in that it uses gamers as crowdsourced labor in processing immense amounts of data at virtually no cost.
Play To Cure was launched in February by Cancer Research UK, a nonprofit organization, to help medical researchers analyze vast volumes of genetic data from tumor samples.
Analyzing Cancer Data
Taking place in a futuristic setting, players guide a spaceship through an intergalactic course, gathering a fictional precious cargo called “Element Alpha.” However, they interact with real cancer data and provide analysis for genetic flaws that result in cancer.
By crowdsourcing the analysis to thousands of players around the world, scientists obtain access to free labor as well as accelerated research deemed faster and more accurate than computers alone.
An estimated 14 million people worldwide are diagnosed with cancer each year, according to the World Health Organization. The number is expected to rise to 22 million a year within the next 20 years.
Discovering Genetic Flaws
The players’ actions in the game help researchers see trends in genetic data, such as which genes are faulty in cancer patients. The information will help the pharmaceutical industry develop new drugs that target specific genetic faults. The scientists also hope they can find ways on how to stop cancer from developing in the first place.
The app is available for download at PokerStars, which helped fund the innovative program. The Isle of Man-based gaming company sent programmers alongside teams from Facebook, Google, and Amazon Web Services to make the project possible.
Gene microarrays are useful for analyzing large genetic faults known as copy number alterations – when a whole section of the chromosome is gained or lost.
[Researchers] “need a way to work out which are the ones driving cancer, and which are just ‘passenger’ genes along for the ride,” according to a PokerStars press statement. “Microarrays let scientists analyse DNA from many thousands of tumour samples simultaneously, to find the most frequent changes that are more likely to be the culprits.”
The scientists want to leverage the human eye, which is still the best technology for picking up these genetic patterns.
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