Better than "Candy Crush": This smartphone game helps scientists find a cure for cancer

Play to Cure: "Genes in Space" players decoded a half year's worth of genetic data in just one short month

By Sarah Gray
March 18, 2014 2:28AM (UTC)
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There are many addicting smartphone games out there -- "Angry Birds," "Flappy Bird" and "Candy Crush" are just a small sample. None of them are quite like "Play to Cure: Genes in Space;" its goal is to help scientists at Cancer Research UK decode genetic material while virtually blasting through space. In just one month "citizen scientists" have decoded DNA that would have, according to Medical News Today, taken six months to analyze.

The game was launched in early February of this year, and since that time gamers have made 1.5 million classifications. Footnotes from Medical News Today put it this way: "Each time gamers play the game they analyse the DNA of one chromosome -- one classification -- some 2yds/0.002km of DNA." If the tightly wound spirals of DNA were stretched out flat, players from around the world have decoded around 40 miles of genetic information in a mere month.


Computers are not quite accurate enough, so human eyes are needed to spot patterns in the DNA data to find genetic faults. It would take scientists years to do this, but with the help of "citizen scientists," the job is being sped up. A description from the Google Play store explains how the game collects the data:

"Element Alpha represents genetic cancer data that scientists across the world analyse on a daily basis. Genes in Space has successfully translated this data into an interactive, asteroid-strewn intergalactic assault course.

By collecting Element Alpha and navigating your spaceship through the cosmos you’re finding the significant genetic changes which help scientists to discover cancer causing genes and develop new life saving treatments.

So gamers take note. The "Genes in Space" story may not be real, but the impact of what you’re doing is far from science-fiction."

The game can be downloaded for free from both the iTunes Store and Google Play. Researchers at Cancer Research UK are incredibly grateful for the gamers, whose playing speeds up research. Carlos Caldas, a senior group leader at Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, told Medical News Today, "We're working hard to develop better drugs, improve the diagnosis of cancer patients and understand why some treatments work and others won't -- to spare unpleasant side effects."


h/t: Medical News Today

Sarah Gray

Sarah Gray is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on innovation. Follow @sarahhhgray or email

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Cancer Genes In Space Genetics Smartphone United Kingdom Video