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Cell phone game joins fight against cancer

Anyone fancy a game of cancer hunting? The charity Cancer Research UK has announced a partnership with an England-based software agency to develop a game in which the general public can analyze cancer data while playing. Scientists hope the game will help them recognize new causes of cancer.

Scientists from the charity are using cancer patients' genetic fingerprints to find ways to treat the disease in a much more focused way, but they have encountered a snag: their research is producing "terabytes upon petabytes of data requiring analysis."

To analyze the data - which must be looked at by a human eye rather than by a machine - Cancer Research UK is working with a company called Guerilla Tea to develop a game called GeneGame. The potential of having thousands of eyes on the data means it can be processed quickly, rather than over the course of many years.

Amy Carton from Cancer Research UK says: "We're right at the start of a world-first initiative that will result in a game that we hope hundreds of thousands of people across the globe will want to play over and over again and, at the same time, generate robust scientific data analysis."

Cancer cells can be analyzed better by the human eye than by machine. Source: Cancer Research UK.

Though GeneGame will be released in the UK later this year, it is not the charity's first initiative involving the public. The first one, called Cell SliderTM, went live in October 2012 and uses the public to classify breast cancer samples. The initiative is helping scientists understand risks and responses to treatment.

Dr. Joanna Reynolds from Cancer Research UK is excited about past and future developments, saying: "In just 3 months, citizen scientists had analyzed data that would typically take our scientists 18 months to do and early indications of the accuracy are promising. With GeneGame we are being bolder, braver and bigger, and we hope that by the end of the year we'll have a game that not only is fun to play, but will play a crucial role in developing new cancer cures sooner - ultimately saving lives."

In developing GeneGame, Guerilla Tea is drawing from ideas created at an event that took place in March 2013 called GameJam. The gathering brought scientists and computer programmers together in an effort to generate solutions for data analysis.

The app developers garnered ideas at the GameJam event.

Though Cancer Research UK told blog the charity is unable to disclose detailed information about the mechanism of the game until it is launched, it did say that "the game will be a smartphone app, it will have social at its heart and we hope to make it reach as wide an audience as possible, globally, through all available channels."

For the GameJam event, computer programmers helped identify reasons why genes are gained or lost by comparing the genetic make up of large numbers of tumor samples in order to find common changes. They did this by using "gene microarrays" - a technique that looks at faulty cancer-causing genes.

So rather than crushing candy on our phones, we could all be crushing cancer.

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