Cancer gamification project analyzes 1.5M chromosomes in one month

Nonprofit Cancer Research UK is developing a good track record in gamification. In the 18 months since it introduced "Cell Slider," citizen scientists have analyzed more than two million images of tumor samples, and it is now reporting strong uptake of its new mobile game.

After one month gamers have analyzed genetic data that would have taken a scientist 6 months to work through. While "Cell Slider" and early gamification successes like "Foldit" are obviously research projects, the science in Cancer Research UK's latest project is well hidden. Players of the iPhone and Android game--"Play to Cure: Genes in Space"--are told to plot a route through the densest areas of a map before piloting a spaceship along their chosen course. Points are awarded for collecting the material that is found in the densest areas of the map.

Other than the Cancer Research UK logo in the credits, there is little indication the game is a research initiative. The science is hidden in the maps through which players plot their routes. These maps are representations of real DNA microarrays, and in charting a path through the densest regions players are helping researchers identify peaks and troughs in the source data. These correspond to regions in which pieces of chromosomes have been gained or lost, a phenomenon known as copy number alteration.

Cancer Research UK has tried using software to identify peaks and troughs but found that humans are better at spotting the regions. It would take one scientist 6 months to analyze 1.5 million chromosomes, the nonprofit estimates. Gamers have worked through that much DNA in one month. "It can take us years to decode the huge amounts of data generated by research. But with everyone's help the boost to our work could be enormous," Professor Carlos Caldas, senior group leader at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, said in a statement.

So far, gamers have played the game for 53,000 hours, in which time they have analyzed half the data in the first phase of the project.

- check out PMLiVE's take
- here's the press release

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