Gaming enthusiasts across
the world can from Tuesday join the search for cancer cures with a citizen
science project using a Smartphone game to help researchers analyse vast
volumes of genetic data from tumour samples.
Called "Play to Cure:
Genes in Space", the spaceship game is designed for Smartphones and was
launched by the charity Cancer Research UK (CRUK), which hopes it will speed up
the decoding of data to reveal patterns of the genetic faults that cause
cancers to grow and spread.
Travelling in a world set
800 years in the future, players guide a fast-paced spaceship safely through a
hazard-strewn intergalactic assault course, gathering along the way a fictional
precious cargo called "Element Alpha".
How does the game work?
Each time a player steers
the ship to follow the Element Alpha path, they also reveal patterns and,
unwittingly, provide analysis of variations in the genetic data, explained
Hannah Keartland, who led the project for CRUK and unveiled the game at a
It is this information that
will be fed back to CRUK scientists. And to ensure accuracy, each section of
gene data will be tracked by several different players.
"We want anyone,
anywhere, at any age, to download this game and play it," said Keartland.
If everyone around the
world were to play the game for even a couple of minutes each, she said,
"we could have an absolutely mind-blowing impact in terms of accelerating
An estimated 14 million
people worldwide are diagnosed with cancer each year and that toll is expected
to rise to 22 million a year within the next 20 years, according to a World
Health Organisation report issued on Monday.
A way of saving lives
Scientists will use the
information gathered from "Genes in Space" players to work out which
genes are faulty in cancer patients. This in turn should help them develop new
drugs that target specific genetic faults, and new ways to figure out how to
stop cancer developing in the first place.
"It's not just a game,
it's way of saving lives," said Tony Selman, a 72-year-old prostate cancer
survivor from Middlesex, central England, who helped launch the new game.
Play to Cure is CRUK's
second citizen project following a similar but smaller one last year called
CellSlider – which the charity said cut the time needed for researchers to
analyse a set of breast cancer samples from 18 months to three months.
Professor Carlos Caldas, an
oncologist at CRUK's Cambridge Institute, explained that it works by using data
generated by screening tools called gene microarrays – which scientists use to
look for areas of the human genome that show up faults in cancer patients – a
sign they may be causing the disease.
Gene microarrays are useful
for analysing large genetic faults known as copy number alterations – when a
whole section of the chromosome is gained or lost.
Since these large sections
of chromosomes may involve many different genes, scientists need a way to work
out which are the ones driving cancer – known as oncogenes – and which ones are
just "passenger" genes along for the ride, he said.
Scientists generally use
computer software to trawl through the huge amounts of data generated by
microarrays to spot the precise locations of copy number changes, but in many
cases these are not accurate enough.
"Computers are very
good, but they are not perfect," Caldas told reporters. "The human
eye is still the best technology we have for picking up these patterns, and... "Genes
in Space" is harnessing that power."
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