It is already your camera, music collection, video library and home office rolled into one, but did you know that your smartphone could also help cure cancer or beat Alzheimer’s?
Welcome to citizen science, in which people volunteer to harness the processing power of their smartphones and computers to help professional research projects.
Whether it’s counting garden birds for the UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, donating a home computer’s downtime to scientists hunting for extra-terrestrial life or using their smartphone to speed up the quest to cure cancer, citizen science is growing increasingly popular.
There are estimated to be around 1.5 million people globally who regularly contribute to citizen science projects, with a further 3-4 million people dedicating at least an hour a year.
Professor Muki Haklay, a University College London geographer who leads a variety of citizen science projects around the world, says today’s army of volunteers has its roots in the hobby birdwatchers, archaeologists, weather watchers and butterfly collectors of old.
While 60 or 70 years ago, a small number of enthusiastic amateurs would have volunteered to take part in professional projects, today, vast numbers are able to work together, wherever they are in the world.
The boom in citizen science is fuelled by advances in technology, including the rise of the internet, PCs and smartphones, as well as societal change.
Professor Haklay said: “More people are going on to higher education, which whets their appetite for research. Plus, people have more free time than in past and they are living longer and have a healthier old age. As a result, citizen science is growing massively.”
The citizen science movement allows scientists to rapidly and easily gather huge amounts data from large geographical areas. It also enables them to capitalise on the spare processing power of volunteers’ phones and computers.
Incredibly, by combining the computational power of 100,000 smartphones to create a virtual supercomputer it is possible to do 300 years’ worth of calculations in just three months.
Scientists in the UK and Australia are using such smartphone networks to unlock some of the secrets of cancer, speeding up the search for new treatments.
At Imperial College London, Dr Kirill Veselkov has designed an algorithm that breaks down enormous amounts of data into small, easy-to-analyse, chunks.
Run for six hours overnight as a phone charges, Vodafone Foundation’s Dreamlab app downloads some of this data and crunches at least 10,000 problems on it an hour before sending the results back to the lab.
How you can help to fight cancer while you sleep: Introducing DreamLab
It is hoped the citizen science project will identify vital new combinations of drugs that can be used to fight cancer.
Importantly, these drug cocktails would be tailored to the DNA mutations responsible for an individual person’s disease.
Using existing medicines would be much quicker and cheaper than developing new ones, but, with there being a trillion different ways to combine 10,000 drugs into treatments, vast computational power is needed.
Dr Veselkov said: “We are generating huge volumes of health data around the world every day but just a fraction of this is being put to use.
“By harnessing the processing power of thousands of smartphones, we can tap into this invaluable resource and look for clues in datasets.
“Ultimately, this could help us make better use of existing drugs and find more effective combinations of drugs tailored to patients, improving treatments.”
DreamLab has already proved its worth in Australia, where the data crunched by more than 300,000 smartphones has allowed scientists to identify almost 150 new subtypes of cancer.
Traditionally, cancer is classified by the tissue a tumour first develops in, be it the breast, prostate, pancreas or another part of the body.
But by using the DreamLab app to sift through enormous amounts of data, scientists at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in New South Wales were able to group cancers together based on the mutations in their genes rather than the part of the body they were found in.
It is hoped this will make them easier to treat.
Normally, scientists look for mutations in a small selection of genes but the extra computational power provided by DreamLab allowed them to study changes in groups of up to 20 genes at one time.
Genes code for proteins and so a mutation that causes cancer can leave tell-tale signs in the proteins it makes.
The Garvan team matched the mutations in the tumours of 3,750 people with the changes across a network of about 20,000 proteins.
This allowed them to place the tumours into 141 different groups which had a similar genetic signature, meaning it might be possible to treat them with the same drug, despite them traditionally being thought of as being very different.
Researcher Dr Catherine Vacher from the Garvan Institute said: “We see a future where one day a genomic test could classify a patient’s cancer and give their oncologist insight into the best treatments for that patient.”
Citizen science is hard at work on other diseases.
For instance, the Folding@Home app from Stanford University in the US, borrows processing power to further research into diseases from Ebola to Parkinson’s.
Information from the Sea Hero Quest smartphone game is helping British scientists understand what goes wrong in the brain in dementia.
And HTC’s Power to Give app works on “the world’s biggest questions”, crunching data on science, medicine and the environment overnight.
The best known project of all is SETI@home.
Based at the University of California, Berkeley, it uses the processing power of idle home computers to comb through data from radio telescopes that are searching the skies for signals from other civilisations.
The lure of ET is so strong that more than six million people have signed up for SETI@home since it was launched almost 20 years ago.
Back in on Earth and in the UK, Dr Veselkov has started to use DreamLab to look at how various foods interact with cancer genes.
He said: “You can imagine that in the future you could use food as a medicine.”
Megan Retka Tidd, acting head of Vodafone Foundation in Australia, said: “People anywhere in the world can download DreamLab and be part of this incredible movement of citizen scientists.
“Our hope is that, by democratising the research process in this way, we are not only speeding up research, we are providing a pathway for regular people – like me and you – to be involved in the ground-breaking results that follow.”
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