Facebook, Google geeks 'hack' into cancer research problem with mobile game

Playing video games on mobile devices could help researchers solve riddles in mountains of genetic tumor data. And Cancer Research UK has enlisted programming talent from Amazon Web Services, Facebook ($FB) and Google ($GOOG) to help craft a mobile game to make video game players into "citizen scientists."

Call it crowdsourcing video game junkies--in a way that could pave the way to more targeted treatments for cancer.

The project provides a new method of tackling an ongoing dilemma in the cancer research world: Scientists have amassed way more data than they can quickly understand. The so-called Big Data bugaboo has attracted a bevy of software companies to offer new analytics to help slice and dice genomic data into digestible portions that scientists can use to make discoveries.

But it turns out that the human eyeballs still play a vital role in spotting abnormalities in genetic information, seeing things more clearly than even the analytics machines. Enter the U.K. cancer charity's big idea: Tap developers from Facebook, Google and others in collaboration with the Citizen Science Alliance to create a mobile game that enables just about anyone with a few minutes to spare to help them sort through the messy data in a fun format.

"We're making great progress in understanding the genetic reasons cancer develops. 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," Professor Carlos Caldas, senior group leader at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, University of Cambridge, said in a statement. "Future cancer patients will receive treatment targeted to the genetic fingerprint of their tumor and we hope this exciting project will bring forward the day this becomes a reality.

The Citizen Science Alliance previously worked with the cancer charity and others to create a game called Cell SliderTM, which was initially released in October to analyze cancer tissue samples. The crew will be at it again this weekend for a three-day GameJam for the new mobile game that the charity aims to unveil this summer.

Working crazy hours to advance new consumer tech in a flash sounds like how Mark Zuckerberg led the fast birth of Facebook, the social media giant.

"At Facebook we believe the best way to solve a problem is to bring smart people together to 'hack' a solution," Philip Su, engineering site director of Facebook London, said. "That approach is just as valid in the field of life sciences as it is in software engineering."

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