Here's an incredible and simple way to use your smartphone to discover a cure for cancer

Dr Samantha Oakes of the Garvan Institute

An app that harnesses the under-utilised computing capacity in smartphones to help with cancer research has been launched by the Garvan Institute for Medical Research and the Vodafone Foundation.

The Sydney-based Garvan Institute conducts research into cancer, Alzheimers and diabetes, and its supercomputer is straining with the workload.

Like [email protected] the scientific experiment using internet-connected home computers to search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), the Institute’s Android app called DreamLab harnesses the processing power of idle mobiles. When a phone with the app are plugged in, have enough charge and are on wifi, they will begin to work on problems for Garvan.

Before running the first time, users can choose how much of their mobile data they are willing to contribute to the project – starting at 50mb, as well as which cancer project to target – breast, ovarian, pancreatic, prostate – or all of them.

The Institute’s research focuses on analysing genomes to find out more about the individual mutations. They currently process around 20,000 genomes a year, which totals about 1-2 petabytes of raw data (a petabyte is 1,000 terabytes). If enough idle mobiles sign up and on, the Institute hopes to process nearly million genomes a year.

DreamLab in action

Think of a genome as like a ticker tape, with lots of letters coding whether you are tall, have dark skin, or are susceptible to certain medications. Within this code, certain changes could explain why someone has developed cancer in their breast or pancreas. The Garvan Institute is using its computers to read and interpret the genomes.

Researchers want to move beyond a tissue-based classification of cancer – defining it by the kinds of cells that it is made of, focusing instead on the cause of the mutation.

“We are understanding which of those changes in everyone’s sequence contributes to disease progression. That is the onset of cancer, and the onset of chemotherapeutic resistance,” explains Dr Samantha Oakes of the Garvan Institute.

To put this phone-based supercomputer in context, your mobile is more powerful than the computers NASA used to send Neil Armstrong to the moon. It’s even more powerful than some modern rocket computers.

Around 30 Samsung Galaxy phones can produce the same amount of computing power as one core of Garvan’s supercomputer, according to Alyssa Jones, Head of Vodafone Foundation.

“So 100,000 [phones] is 3,000 times faster than one core of Garvan’s supercomputer,” she explains.

Garvan are targeting 100,000 users within the first year and with a relatively painless barrier to entry, they are hoping to scale this up much more.

The app is currently Android only. The developers are in talks with Apple to create an iPhone version.

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