Google, Amazon, Facebook Help U.K. Researchers Hack Cancer

British arms of major Internet firms back weekend hackathon to disguise complex cancer DNA analysis in a smartphone game.
 7 Big Data Solutions Try To Reshape Healthcare
7 Big Data Solutions Try To Reshape Healthcare
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The U.K. arms of Amazon, Facebook and Google are collaborating with a major British cancer charity for a weekend hackathon to develop a smartphone game that will help advance cancer research.

The aim of the resulting game -- codenamed GeneRun -- is to recruit as many "citizen scientists" as possible to play what are hoped to be fun and engaging games, but which are actually cleverly disguised ways to get more eyeballs on very complex cancer mutation graphical data.

At present, researchers need to carefully spot connections in cancer DNA mutation data by eye, as this is a task that can not yet be automated with computers. The problem: there are not enough scientists to do that, which means insights into the way cells become cancerous are being lost.

"Our machines can't pick up on the very slight variations and nuances that only the human eye can pick up on," said Amy Carton, Citizen Science projects lead at Cancer Research U.K., the research charity behind the program. "And we have terabytes of data to get through."

[ Want to learn how big data is contributing to the fight against cancer? See IBM Watson Helps Doctors Fight Cancer. ]

If it comes off, GeneRun could add the help of thousands of volunteer "researchers," who will (presumably) be sifting through data while they are solving puzzles or killing virtual aliens.

The GameJam hackathon will bring together 40 developers, graphic designers, data specialists and gamers to come up with a basic design by Sunday, March 3. An agency will then build the game, with a proposed summer 2013 launch.

"We're making great progress in understanding the genetic reasons cancer develops," said professor Carlos Caldas, senior group leader at the Cancer Research U.K. Cambridge Institute at the University of Cambridge.

"But the clues to why some drugs will work and some won't are held in data which need to be analyzed by the human eye -- and this could take years. By harnessing the collective power of citizen scientists we'll accelerate the discovery of new ways to diagnose and treat cancer much more precisely."

The British arm of Amazon Web Services is providing -- for no charge -- the technology platform on which the final game will be hosted, plus supplying the 40 anticipated GameJam participants with free technology resources and expertise to help them start GeneRun game development.

Facebook U.K. is similarly supporting the cancer GameJam with expertise from its London-based engineering team, and it has been acting as an informal recruiter through its links with some of the British universities sending attendees, including London's City University. Google U.K. will provide financial support and is hosting the hackathon at Campus, its co-working space in the heart of East London's Tech City.

"It is exciting to be part of this project and use cloud technology and gamification of data to help in driving research towards finding a cure for cancer," said Teresa Carlson, VP of worldwide public sector for Amazon Web Services. Philip Su, engineering site director of Facebook London, said, "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."

Speaking on the BBC Friday morning, Su said, "We're harnessing the power of people from all over the place here ... The average U.K. Facebook user has 256 friends and if only one of those people potentially downloads this game, then that could really help. We see this as an unqualified 'good.'"

For George Freeman, a politician who is also life science adviser to the government, "This is a fantastic example of how the U.K. is harnessing the power of the Internet for good, using cutting-edge technology to further research. We look forward to seeing the fruits of this innovative exercise."

GeneRun will combine anonymized Cancer Research U.K. DNA datasets with data analysis technology from The Citizen Science Alliance, a group of organizations committed to increasing the British public's participation in science.

The GeneRun experiment follows that organization's earlier attempt to recruit crowdsourcing help in unpicking complex dataset analysis using a game called CellSlider, which gets gamers to help analyze archived cancer tissue samples. Carton told listeners on the BBC Friday that CellSlider was able to process in three months via a global crowdsourcing game effort what otherwise would have taken 18 months.

"We've already seen that there are tens of thousands of people happy to contribute their spare time to the cause of science," said Dr. Chris Lintott, the Alliance's chair. "We hope the GameJam will let even more people join forces to help find cures for cancer."

"We're looking for use of people's 'micro-moments' here," added Carton. "We're asking people to kill a bit of time here and also do what we all want to do at the same time. Kill cancer."