Cancer patients often face a difficult decision: Should they have surgery, or opt for radiation? Some patients might respond better to one treatment over the other, but those outcomes can be hard to predict. To help find better answers, U.K. researchers are turning to a mobile game.
Reverse the Odds asks players to repair a magical world by solving puzzles–and each puzzle requires simple analysis of cancer data. As thousands of players look at slides from former cancer patients, answering basic questions about the patterns they see, their answers are sent back to the lab.
“Our researchers have huge amounts of data that needs to be analyzed,” says Hannah Kearland, citizen science lead at Cancer Research U.K., the nonprofit that helped build the game. “A lot of this analysis needs to be done by the human eye –computers just aren’t accurate enough. This can take researchers years. But by making the analysis simple enough for the general public to do, and embedding it in a mobile game, we hoped to get the eyes of the world on our data so that we could analyze it much more quickly and so beat cancer sooner.”
The game asks questions that don’t require scientific training to answer, like whether a particular slide has bright blue cells. The researchers are using the data to look for biomarkers, or particular proteins that can act as a clue for how patients will respond to treatment.
The project is third citizen science game the nonprofit has produced. Cell Slider, a game that asks player to spot cancer cells, has analyzed over 2,500,000 slides so far.
“Cell Slider showed us that the general public could analyze pathology data as accurately as researchers–but that they could do it six times faster,” says Kearland. “It’s that same analysis mechanic which is embedded into Reverse the Odds.”
After building a mobile version of the next game, Genes in Space, the organization realized they could get a bigger crowd by using smartphones.
“Genes in Space had shown us how effective a game was at engaging hundreds of thousands of people,” Kearland says. “So we wanted Reverse the Odds to be a mobile game too, as we thought that would help us get through the analysis really quickly, and so accelerate cancer research.”
Citizen science games from other organizations have shown how well crowdsourcing can work. In 2011, gamers playing a protein-folding game called FoldIt managed to make a major discovery related to AIDS. In three weeks, they found an enzyme that scientists had been looking for over the last decade.