UK Researchers Build Gamified mHealth App to Help Uncover New Cancer Treatments


Researchers with Cancer Research UK have launched a new mobile game called Genes in Space that was designed to help researchers uncover genetic mutations common among certain types of tumors. The game challenges players to fly a spaceship through an asteroid field. The goal of the game is to avoid asteroids while simultaneously collecting “element alpha” a valuable space dust. Players earn points for hoarding element alpha while avoiding oncoming asteroids.

To help researchers, developers embedded raw genome data from tumor samples and visualized it within the game as fields of “element alpha.” As players map their course through the asteroid field to pockets of element alpha, they are simultaneously highlighting potential gene mutations within the data.


The game was designed to solve a problem researchers encountered nearly two years ago while searching for genetic mutations with traditional computer analysis. The problem was that the genetic mutations that researchers were looking for presented themselves in the form of small faults that were easily missed by automated analysis. They found that, while computer algorithms were able to catch most genetic mutations, they were not nearly as accurate as the human eye when it came to picking up on subtle changes within the genetic data. 

In response, developers from Cancer Research UK, Amazon Web Services, Facebook, and Google got together for an elite hackathon aimed at solving the problem through mobile gamification and crowdsourcing. The weekend was held in March 2013, and the result of their work is a game that will allow thousands of players to unknowingly pour over genome data from a library of different tumors, uncovering new mutations and validating each other’s work .

The clues extracted from Genes in Space will help researchers identify common genetic mutations specific to certain types of cancers. Researchers hope that by understanding the underlying genetic mutations, they can begin attacking the mutations with new cancer drugs.

In the early 2000s, researchers discovered that a gene called BRAF was faulty in a majority of melanoma skin cancers. As a result, a new drug was created to treat melanoma patients with this genetic mutation. The medication has become an effective tool in skin cancer treatment. If researchers are able to expedite the process of correlating mutations to certain types of cancers, the information could be invaluable to researchers and pharmaceutical companies working on the next generation of cancer drugs.

Genes in space is available on both iOS and Android devices.

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