Genes in Space: Curing Cancer With Your iPhone

In early February, a new mobile game released with the possibility to revolutionize the fight against cancer. Called “Play to Cure: Genes in Space”, this free game, available both of Google Play and Apple’s App Store, was created by Cancer Research UK in the hopes of involving the public in the process of curing cancer sooner.

The game is simple. The player is a member of Bifrost Industries, and is tasked with collecting “Element Alpha”, a kind of space dust that allows for faster-than-life travel in this fictionalized future. Players are required to first map out a path that will allow them to collect the most amount of this “Element Alpha”, and then must pilot their ship according to the path they just set, collecting Element Alpha and dodging asteroid fields along the way.

Any Element Alpha carried can be sold into credits, which can be used to buy performance and appearance upgrades for the player’s personal ship. It’s easy to pick up while remaining challenging, it’s addictive, and it’s fun- everything a person could ask for in a mobile game.

However, the secret in the game’s cancer-fighting abilities actually has nothing to do with the actual game play itself. It is in the “pre-game” screen, when the player is tasked with mapping their course through the fields of Element Alpha, that the real science happens.

It is the changes in a human’s chromosomal genome that causes cancer. Sometimes, these changes are seemingly minor, with simple amino acids being exchanged in favor of others, or simply deleted altogether. Other times, in a process called “copy number alteration”, entire sections of a genome can be duplicated or deleted. One major cancer that can be caused by copy number alteration is breast cancer.

It is here that players of Genes in Space are helping solve cancer. While scientists can analyze several thousands of cancer genomes at once with modern technology, they still need the human eye to sift through the mountains of data provided. When gamers plot their course through the fields of “Element Alpha” in the game, they are actually plotting the course of a cancer genome.

cancer stuffsImage Credit: Cancer Research UK

By highlighting duplications or absences of certain sections of the genome, players will over time uncover a pattern of duplications and absences that represent the key mutations in a gene that allow for cancer to develop. Scientist can then develop drugs to target these mutations and, hopefully, eradicate the cancer.

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