Imagine a Mobile Phone Game That Could Help Cure Cancer

A new project led by Cancer Research UK (CRUK) brings together a team of tech giants — including Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg (read Zuckerberg's IP profile), Google founder Sergey Brin (read Brin's IP profile), and Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos (read Bezos's IP profile) — to create a mobile phone game that could lead to a cure for cancer.

The game means that anyone with a smartphone and a few minutes to spare could actually contribute to finding a cure for cancer. The project hopes that by mobilizing "citizen scientists" to comb through the data, researchers will be able to accelerate discoveries into new ways to more precisely diagnose and treat cancer. This effort is important, because according to statistics from the World Health Organization, cancer already kills upwards of 7.5 million people worldwide every year — and that number is expected to climb to about 13 million by 2030.

CRUK's scientists are working day and night to identify as many of the genetic faults that drive cancer as possible. By doing so, they hope to create a framework in which they can use a person's genetic profile to diagnose and treat patients in a more targeted way. CRUK scientists say they're making great progress in understanding the underlying genetics behind cancer, but knowing why some drugs work and some don't is more difficult and requires a lot more analysis.

This is where the game comes in.

The data set for this type of research is large and complex. There's a lot to analyze, and most of it must be done using the human eye, which can detect subtle changes that machines are not programmed to look for. It's those small differences that lead to the most amazing discoveries.

If the analysis is limited to CRUK's researchers, it could take many years. By creating a game for a mobile phone, researchers hope to employ millions of sets of eyes to analyze data and help them come up with solutions.

The first step in game development was what CRUK called "GameJam," in which 40 techies, including computer programmers, gamers, graphic designers, and other tech specialists, took the entire weekend of March 1–3 in London to transform CRUK's raw genetic data into a game format for the so-called citizen scientists. From there, an agency will take that information and make the game concept happen. The CRUK team plans to launch the game in mid-2013.

Of the undertaking, Philip Su, engineering director of Facebook London, stated:

At Facebook we believe the best way to solve a problem is to bring smart people together to "hack" a solution.  That approach is just as valid in the field of life sciences as it is in software engineering. For us to be involved in something as important as the search for cures for cancer is a huge honour and we hope to help build on the incredible work done by Cancer Research UK.