How Cancer Research UK is using mobile gaming to conduct medical research

Recently the World Health Organisation announced that cancer had overtaken heart disease as the number one killer of Australians, as well as being the number one killer of people globally.

The WHO had another message as well. That cancer was a largely preventable disease.

Humans have lots of medical data about cancer. With millions of cases each year there’s a vast amount of data available to researchers that can help them understand how to prevent and treat the disease.

Much of this data needs to be analysed by the human eye as computers are not flexible or sophisticated enough to recognise the patterns that humans can detect.

This is where the bottleneck occurs. Lots of data, but few paid researchers.

To address this issue Cancer Research UK, a charity focused on cancer research, held a GameJam in March 2013 in London hoping to come up with game concepts that would help analyse cancer data.

Within 48 hours they had 9 working games and 12 game prototypes, different approaches combining cancer data analysis with fun and replayability.

Over the last year the charity has been working with a game developer to refine several of these games to the level where they could be publicly released.

Now, Cancer Research UK has just launched the first free mobile game (for Android and iOS) that has players analysing cancer data while they’re having fun.

Named Genes in Space, players must map their way through subspace then fly the route in a custom spaceship, collecting a fictional substance called Element Alpha and dodging or blowing up asteroids on the way. The more Element Alpha they collect, the more money they make, allowing them to further customise their ship.

Meanwhile cancer researchers harvest the data created by players at two points, when they map their route and when they fly it. The subspace that players map is real genetic data, and while Element Alpha is fictional, what players are actually collecting is data that helps researchers make sense of the genetic structure.

I’ve long been a fan of combining data with gameplay. We need to make research and science fun to lead more people into the area. If people think they’re simply playing a game rather than doing science, that’s fine too.

I hope that one day soon we’ll see an Grade A game developer take an interest in this area and set out to integrate elements of science data research into a high quality game.

However to get here, we’ll also need to see research institutes and governments, who hold the data, interested in pursuing new ways to analyse data, rather than relying on a few expensive researchers.

Until that happens, I guess we’ll have to be satisfied playing Genes in Space.

Or Cellslider, or FoldIt

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