* Project seeks to harness data analysis power of gamers
* Players unwittingly spot patterns in gene data
* Cancer diagnosed in estimated 14 million people a year
By Kate Kelland
LONDON, Feb 4 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
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".
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 London launch on Tuesday.
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 research".
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.
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."
(Reporting by Kate Kelland, editing by Alistair Lyon)