Play to Cure: Smartphone games to fight breast cancer

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Media captionAs players navigate their spaceships through an intergalactic obstacle course they help map faults in genetic data

If you have ever wanted to help cure cancer, you might now be able to do so - with a spot of space-travel from the comfort of your own home.

Scientists at Cancer Research UK have developed an intergalactic smartphone game to help them analyse the overwhelming reams of genetic data generated in recent studies.

They hope thousands of people will play the game, simultaneously trawling through genetic material to pinpoint more precisely which genes cause the disease.

Game developers at the company Guerilla Tea worked with scientists to translate anonymous genetic data gathered from thousands of breast tumours into an adventure in space.

To trawl through this data alone would take scientists many years.

But buried in the colossal dataset there could be key genetic flaws responsible for the development of cancer.

Using current DNA analysis techniques, scientists get readouts from tumour samples containing lots of peaks and troughs. And it's these highs and lows that are likely to harbour the genetic abnormalities they are looking for.

Computer software can help locate these to a certain extent, but the more precise judgement calls still need human eyes.

So game developers have transformed the readouts into an intergalactic landscape.

'Genes in space'

In Play to Cure: Genes in Space, players navigate their spaceships safely around many obstructions while on a fast-paced mission to collect a precious material known as Element Alpha.

As they do so they guide their ships across mountains and valleys, corresponding to areas of the genome hiding the potentially cancer-promoting faults.

And as they travel through the landscape they trace a course that shows scientists the high and low bits - the bits where the mutations are likely to be.

The map each player plots is then sent back to scientists for interpretation. As more people highlight the peaks and troughs, scientists are alerted to these as areas worth further exploration.

The game draws on the largest genetic study into breast cancer, carried out in 2012, which changed the framework of how breast cancer is seen - from one broad disease into a disease of 10 different subtypes.

From the vast data gathered during this research, scientists search for areas of abnormalities known as copy number variations.

This is where sections of genetic material are either gained or lost - and these are known to be particularly important in the development of cancer.

Image copyright CRUK
Image caption Zooming through space to unlock which genes cause breast cancer

As these error segments can involve many different genes, in certain cases researchers are yet to clarify which genes actually cause the cancer and which are just "passenger" genes along for the ride.

Computer software is currently not accurate enough to do the job. In one in 10 cases something will be missed.

So researchers at Cancer Research UK and elsewhere are manually sifting through genetic material to detect the subtle changes that machines haven't yet been programmed to find.

'Genetic fingerprint'

By converting the data into a game, the charity hopes to harness the detection powers of thousands people, increasing the chance of specific genetic faults being found with accuracy and speed.

Prof Carlos Caldas, of Cancer Research UK, says: "Future cancer patients will be treated in a more targeted way based on their tumour's genetic fingerprint and our team is working hard to understand why some drugs work and others won't.

"But no device can do this reliably and it would take a long time to do the job manually. Play to Cure: Genes in Space will help us find ways to diagnose and treat cancer more precisely - sooner."

The initial idea for the game arose from a hackathon in 2013, which brought together scientists, games developers and designers from companies including Google and Facebook.

Tony Selman, 72, has prostate cancer, and lost his wife to cancer of the oesophagus. He attended the hackathon as the charity's UK's citizen science ambassador.

He says: "When you have to deal with cancer, you can either crawl into a hole and sulk or you can come out fighting. I chose to do that.

"I think this is a terrific game. And I'm sure when my grandson gets hold of it he will have a field day. After all more people who are working on cancer the quicker we will find cures."

Dr Daniel Livingstone at the Glasgow School of Art, who has worked on a number of games for healthcare but was not involved in this research says:

"They have done a surprisingly good job of translating genetic data into something you can actually play. And this game-based approach has proved successful for a number of other projects.

"I keep getting bashed by asteroids at a certain point - it will be interesting to see how other people do."

Cancer Research UK has seen the benefits of games in the study of cancer before. In 2013 the charity launched their first game called Cell Slider.

More than 200,000 people classified almost two million cancer images.

They say this reduced the time taken for researchers to analyse a subset of breast cancer samples from 18 months to just three.

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