Smartphone app to find cancer mutations

18 March 2013

Cancer Research UK (CRUK) is working with a number of partners including Google, Amazon and Facebook to develop a smartphone app able harness the power of crowdsourcing to identify mutations linked to cancer.

Earlier this month CRUK hosted a weekend ‘hackathon’ at which 40 developers were invited to create prototypes for the app, provisionally called GeneRun, utilising microarray data from breast cancer patients.

The reasoning behind building an app is that human beings have highly-developed pattern recognition abilities, such that they can often be more adept at identifying small pattern changes than complex computer algorithms. CRUK’s Senior Science Communications Manager Joanna Owens said the idea of GeneRun is to "basically open up this analysis to many, many thousands of human eyes and get the public involved".

During the hackathon nine teams came up with 12 possible apps for detecting differences in data. The prototypes will be assessed by CRUK on characteristics such as how well they analyse data, and how fun and addicting they are for people to use. A developer will then be contracted to build the winning app, with the aim of launching it this summer.

This latest app idea follows on from CRUK’s own Cell Slider concept that has successfully employed crowdsourcing to categorise tumour samples, as well as games such as Foldit – developed by the University of Washington – which in 2011 was used to deduce the structure of a viral enzyme that researchers had been unable to solve for more than a decade.