Smartphone Gamers Analyze 6 Month’s Worth of Cancer Data

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Do you guys remember Foldit? It’s from a few years back, so I understand if you don’t. It’s an online puzzle game in which players work together to solve how a protein is “folded,” in other words its configuration. It’s more fun than it sounds, I promise.

Foldit (solve puzzles for science!) was in the news quite a bit in 2011, when within 10 days gamers figured out the correct structure of an enzyme that had baffled scientists for 15 years. The enzyme happened to be a retroviral protease of the Mason-Pfiezer monkey virus, so something pretty similar to HIV/AIDS. Gamers, helping to cure AIDS.

Obviously, that’s cool as heck. And, in the spirit of the scientific method, the hypothesis that gamifying science can lead to good things has been replicated with Play to Cure: Genes in Space.

The smartphone app from Cancer Research UK was only released on February 4, yet gamers have already analyzed 6 months worth of data for cancer research. It’s further proof that even laypeople can help in the fight against cancer (and who knows what else). According to Hannah Keartland, the citizen science lead at Cancer Research UK:

We’re astounded by this fantastic support from citizen scientists across the world which goes to show – you don’t need to wear a lab coat to be a hero.

You might be wondering how this all works. Well, gamers spot patterns in the data, cleverly disguised as a game, and in a little less than 6 weeks have performed 53,000 hours of data analysis, what would take a single scientist 6.5 years. They’ve made 1.5 million classifications, which would take an entire team at least 6 months.

Cambridge professor Carlos Caldas explains:

Computers can’t analyse our research data with 100 per cent accuracy – we need the human eye for greater precision. 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.

So if you’re ever having an argument with a friend, family member, or significant other over the value of videogames in society, just mention that we’re helping to cure cancer and AIDS.

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A recent college graduate who is doing her best to retreat from "the real world" as often as possible, using every form of escapism known to man. Interests include: post-apocalyptic sci-fi, stimulating conversation, and entropic decay. When she's not playing video games (when isn't she playing video games?), chances are she's surfing these fine Interwebs or cuddling with her cat, perhaps simultaneously.