Is it possible to contribute to cancer research while smashing asteroids? The answer is yes. Launched in early 2014, Play to Cure: Genes in Space was the world’s first free mobile game that used the collective force of players to analyse real genetic data and help scientists develop new life-saving treatments. The charity Cancer Research UK, the driving force behind this innovative project, used credits donated by Amazon Web Services (AWS) to make it happen.

You don’t have to wear a lab coat to play a significant part in finding a cure for cancer
Hannah Keartland, Cancer Research UK

It all started in 2013 with an overwhelming fact: researchers in quest of better, targeted treatments for breast cancer had to identify DNA faults in 46,000 data sets coming from tumour samples from patients in the UK and Canada. “That was a lot of data to be analysed, and it had to be done by human eyes, as computers have shown to make mistakes up to 10% of the time,” explains Hannah Keartland, Citizen Science Lead at Cancer Research UK. “It would have taken years for scientists to do this analysis. That’s why we thought about getting the eyes of people all around the world to help.”

The idea started to materialise over the course of a weekend a few months later: scientists, gamers, designers, developers and AWS engineers came together to discuss a way to present the vast volume of data in the shape of an engaging and fun game. Less than a year later, Genes in Space was launched.

Playing games – for a good cause

How did it work? In Genes in Space the players’ mission was to safely navigate their spaceships collecting a valuable substance and destroying asteroids along the way. As players fly through space, they are actually navigating the lines of human genetic data, and their ships’ trails show scientists where cancer-promoting faults are likely to be.

To involve as many users as possible, the game had to be fun: “We didn’t want to attract just people interested in science, but everyone: my 9 year-old nephew helped testing the game!” says Hannah. Players profiles seem to go beyond the typical mobile game audience: “Some time ago we received an email from a retired couple who were also playing and enjoying it.”

Both the vast volume of data to process and the high number of players targeted required a robust background infrastructure. “We needed to develop a hosting infrastructure that was different from anything that we had done before. Having AWS involved since the very beginning made a huge difference: it gave us the confidence that we were using a cloud space technology that had been tried and tested, and was also scalable.”

This flexibility was particularly useful for launch day: “We witnessed big peaks of downloads in the first few days following the press conference.” AWS provided both consultancy and hosting free of charge.

Bringing forward a cure for cancer

Since launch, the Genes in Space app has had over 280,000 downloads internationally, and players have classified 2.6 million snippets of genetic information. “The amount of analysis done in the first month alone would have taken our pathologists six months to do,” explains Hannah. “All of that hard work is now with our team, who is analysing its accuracy to gather more information on how genetic mutations lead to different types of breast cancer. This will help develop tailor-made treatments for breast cancer.”

“Games like this are cutting a significant amount of research time, therefore bringing forward the date for the resulting treatments to be available.” Even if data collection for Genes in Space has been completed, aspiring players can still contribute by playing Reverse The Odds, a new mobile game dedicated to neck, lung and bladder cancer tissue analysis that can already count over 108,000 downloads.

Though public participation in scientific research, also known as ‘citizen science’, is not a new concept, the development of mobile phones and social media has opened a full array of possibilities. “It is really exciting to be part of something so new and innovative,” Hannah concludes. “These games show that you don’t have to wear a lab coat to play a significant part in finding a cure for cancer.”