Hackathon’s Goal: A Smartphone Game That Scores Points for Cancer Research

A UK-based charity is sponsoring a weekend hackathon, but those invited won’t be using their coding talents to advance any business causes. The 40 programmers, gamers, graphic designers and other specialists will spend the time designing a smartphone game that can let average users help with cancer research, and three of the world’s largest technology companies — Amazon, Facebook and Google — will be assisting in that effort.

Cancer Research UK is organizing the event — code-named “GeneRun” — that combines crowdsourcing, big data and gaming. The hope is that a smartphone game will be released to the public this summer.

People playing the game will actually be looking for common changes in genes that make up breast cancer tumors; those changes, caused by a gain or loss of chromosomes, can help explain which mutations drive the cancer.

“They’re attempting to build a massive game that will put the collective minds of thousands on this problem,” Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, told TechNewsWorld. “It’s a very interesting idea, but I expect they will run into some serious challenges in making it happen with regard to how they parse the data and apply the collective results.”

Shall We Play a Game?

Cancer Research UK is looking into the genetic flaws spawning cancer in an attempt to find ways to diagnose and treat patients based on their genetic fingerprint. This research produces vast amounts of data that has to be analyzed with the naked eye.

The data to be analyzed in GeneRun is gathered from microarrays, which measure gene expression. Right now, computer algorithms can spot changes in the number of genes. However, identifying exactly when those changes start and stop demands the human eye, as these changes are too subtle for computers to detect. That identification will help trace exactly which genes are involved in the evolution of the cancer.

The collective power of hundreds of thousands of people worldwide analyzing the data through a game format could drastically speed up research, according to the charity.

Getting Tech Companies Involved

Once a format has been developed at the hackathon, an agency — not named by the charity — will build the game. Amazon, Facebook and Google will provide both infrastructure and brainpower.

Amazon Web Services will provide the technology platform on which the final game will be hosted. It will supply hackathon participants with free tresources and technology expertise. Facebook UK will contribute experts from its London-based engineering team, and Google will provide financial support. The search company will also host the hackathon at “Campus,” a coworking space in East London.

Amazon, Facebook and Google did not respond to our request to comment for this story.

Enter Citizen Science Alliance

The GeneRun project is being organized in conjunction with Citizen Science Alliance, a collaboration of scientists, software developers and educators who develop, manage and use Internet-based citizen science projects.

CSA’s projects include Galaxy Zoo, WhaleFM and Planethunters.

Innovation and Cancer Research

GeneRun is not the first time crowdsourcing has been used in cancer research. In 2007, Canadian researchers used IBM’s World Community Grid, a global network of PCs and laptops owned by hundreds of thousands of people. The volunteers used their idle computer time to analyze the results of experiments on proteins using data collected by scientists at the Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute in Buffalo, New York. They had more than 86 million images of 9,400 unique proteins that could be linked to cancer.

Other technologies that could prove useful include big data analytics, which “could be used to sharply cut down the time necessary to get to an answer,” Enderle said.

One such technology is Acunu, a real-time big data analytics product. Acunu Analytics for Cassandra lets users who are not database experts build applications that dynamically analyze high-velocity data streams at scale and in real time.

“As you create data, we can provide query results on the fly,” Acunu founder and CTO Tim Moreton told TechNewsWorld. “We work with social gaming companies who have tens of millions of users. Cancer research sounds like an interesting project.”

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