Cancer Research UK has released a free game for iPad, iPhone, iPod touch and Android devices that should help research into breast cancer immeasurably. While you play Play to Cure: Genes in Space you will be carrying out vital research that would take more man hours than is currently possible for the charity's scientists. And you won't even realise it.
The game was developed during a 48-hour Cancer Research UK Game Jam, where programmers and designers from Amazon, Facebook, Google, City University, Omnisoft and the charity itself combined to create, from scratch, a mobile app that is fun to play yet uses methods for you to aid research directly. The space flight game devised uses actual gene data as backdrops of a fictitious material that must be collected.
Before each mission, you have to plot your course through a map in order to fly and collect "element alpha" where it is most dense. This map is actually an image of a tiny part of gene data and by drawing the path through the dense areas on the map, you help analyse that specific piece of data while ensuring that you will be collecting the most amount of the element and therefore gaining credits to power up your ship. That analysis is then sent back to a remote server which collates all players' responses. Computers then compare all of the paths drawn for specific maps and it builds an accurate representation for that specific piece of genetic data. Gene defects could then be found and studied.
At the centre of the scientific research is a fun game. As well as having to navigate through the element alpha fields, it also throws asteroids at you to shoot - which are not part of the research. And upgrading your ship means you get to beat harder missions as they appear the more you level up as a player.
"Our researchers have huge amount of data and they are really struggling to get through that data as quickly as they like, and a lot of this data needs to be analysed by the human eye," said Hannah Keartland, citizen science lead for Cancer Research UK during the London launch event for the app. "So the only way to speed up that research is to get more people looking at it.
"We knew that the concept of crowd sourcing is growing rapidly so we spotted an opportunity. We wondered if we could get the general public to help us analyse our data. If they could help our scientists analyse their data quicker, they could speed up their research and hopefully find cures for cancer sooner.
"Every single person can have an impact in terms of accelerating cures for cancer. We want anyone, anywhere and any age to download and play this game. If every single person with a smartphone downloads this game and plays it for two minutes it could have a mind-blowing impact on accelerating research."
The specific research for this generation of Genes in Space was gathered through testing 2,000 patients with breast cancer across the world - a study that discovered that there isn't just one form of breast cancer, but 10 separate diseases. It is further investigation of this data that the game will aid, leading to better testing procedures and even better treatment for future patients.
"We did molecular analyse that generated massive amounts of data," said Professor Carlos Caldas, senior group leader at the charity's Cambridge Institute at the University of Cambridge. "Just to give you an idea: from each of those 2,000 patients the molecular analysis came up with more than two million data points.
"You can imagine that to analyse that data would be very time consuming. We could use computers, but they are only about 90 per cent accurate."
"The difference between a computer and a human is that a human can recognise patterns and fragments of patterns," added Dara O'Brien, host of the launch event. "They can spot a pattern emerging. It's a similar way that a human can decrypt one of those swirly Captcha things. They can recognise that there's a bent K. A computer can't.
"You could show a computer a picture of a puppy and a kitten and ask it which one is which. It can't tell the difference.
"So in this situation, where you show a human the raw data and say 'look for the denser areas' to map the path through space, a human brain is much more efficient at following the pattern."
But if you're still wondering whether you should download and play the free iOS and Android app, prostrate cancer survivor Tony Selman, who also spoke during the event, ended with some sage words: "It's not just a game," he said. "It's a way of saving lives."
Play to Cure: Genes in Space is available as a free download from iTunes and Google Play now. There are no hidden costs or in-app purchases. Versions for Windows Phone, BlackBerry or other mobile devices are not yet planned, but Keartland explained that Cancer Research UK "will consider other platforms" in the future.