Alex Bourne, a 34 year-old Vodafone client service manager based in Glasgow, has lived with brain cancer since he was 24.
He now lives a normal life with his partner, volunteers with Maggie’s Centres (a network of drop-in centres for people affected by cancer), and encourages his friends and family to use DreamLab, an app which lets your smartphone assist with cancer research while you sleep.
DreamLab “as a concept is very simple,” says Mr Bourne.
To use it, “you start the app running and then you go to sleep, the app receives calculations from Imperial College, it completes those calculations, and it sends the results back,” he says.
And more high-performance computing power then means more chances to tease out patterns in the proteins that are helpful to cancer patients, says Kirill Veselkov, assistant professor in computational medicine at Imperial College.
His research looks at proteins in the most promising cancer drugs, and compares them with two other sorts of proteins — ones found in drugs used to treat things other than cancer, and ones found in food.
It’s easier to get drugs approved for cancer use if the US Food and Drug Administration and European Medicines Agency have endorsed them already for use with other diseases, he says.
And what if, instead of just saying patients should have a healthy diet, doctors could recommend foods which actually counteracted cancer?
The research farmed out on smartphones is already having “implications for prospective clinical studies, to allow clinical researchers to confirm these anti-cancer properties, in a smarter, data-driven profession,” says Dr Veselkov.
Is that a cancer-fighting supercomputer in your pocket…?
To put the processing power in your pocket in context, IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer beat reigning chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997 with 11.38 gigaflops of processing speed.
A Galaxy S5 smartphone has 142 gigaflops.
And while you could do these calculations on a supercomputer, says Dr Veselkov, having a dedicated supercomputing platform just for the task means you can find patterns faster.
So far, DreamLab has identified 110 molecules found in food that Dr Veselkov and his colleagues expect to have an anti-cancer affect comparable to clinically approved anti-cancer drugs.
These food molecules are more than 70% like the compounds in the drugs, he says.
And so they are worth researchers testing their anti-cancer effects.
Between 30 and 40% of cancers can be prevented by diet and lifestyle alone, according to recent research.
Foods derived from fruits and vegetables especially rich in cancer-beating molecules are especially effective.
These are molecules like polyphenols and flavonoids (which are both found in plants), terpenoids (the compounds that give cinnamon and cloves their scent and sunflowers their yellow colour), and botanical polysaccharides (long chains like starches).
They prevent or slow cancer in different ways.
Some block the spread of blood vessels in tumours – a process called angiogenesis.
Others slow cancer cells breaking away from a tumour and spreading – metastasis.
But systematic research on diet and cancer is still a new field.
“What we’ve done here is one of the first approaches to look at tens of thousands of molecules in very large scale, systematically analyse them, and create a very sophisticated food map of different ingredients,” he says.
Dr Veselkov and his colleagues published their first findings in Nature Research’s Scientific Reports on 3 July 2019.
And this was “one of the first articles in that respect,” he says.
The hardest task was distilling the mammoth amount of protein data into bite-sized tasks, which wouldn’t overwhelm a smartphone’s memories or data connections, Dr Veselkov says.
The data for the calculations include how proteins interact with “20,000 genes, and about 1.5 billion connections between them,” he says.
He and his colleagues had to find ways to create discrete tasks “taking 20 minutes on a mobile phone, then sending the results to us back on the cloud.”
And to protect users’ security, no information is shared from one smartphone to another – only between users and the central database.
All this “requires a lot of job scheduling and preparation, actually,” he says.
The project is “purely altruistic, there are no financial rewards to people: they are donating research power just to be part of the research project,” says Dr Veselkov.
The discoveries were made in less than a year – it would have taken decades using traditional computing methods.
Putting it into context, a personal computer running 24-hours a day would take 300 years to process the data required, while 100,000 smartphones running six hours a night, could do the job in three months.
“I personally spoke to my family and friends and encouraged them to download it as soon as I learned about it,” says Mr Bourne, who is originally from Cheshire.
“Principally, people use it at night,” hence the name DreamLab, he says.
But “nothing’s stopping you running calculations during the day, and it’s a good reason to get people off their phones, and using DreamLab instead,” he says.
Meanwhile Jozef Youssef – a chef who has worked in Michelin star establishments including Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck and Hélène Darroze’s restaurant at The Connaught – is teaming up with the researchers to design recipes using these possible “hyperfoods”.
Rooting for you
“A modified kimchi salad (a Korean dish based on fermented cabbage), combined with cabbage, ginger, a bit of chili, and lemon, is the first” they have come up with, says Dr Veselkov.
Recipes are helpful, says Mr Bourne.
There are times during cancer treatment when it can be difficult to hold one food down, but you’ll have better luck with something else, he says.
Cancer’s “a very lonely experience to begin with,”.
When he visits his doctor, “there are people in the waiting room for their first post diagnosis consultation,” and “it’s only natural to say to them I had this problem, I tried doing this,” he says.
It can be inspiring to be able to tell people earlier in their cancer journey “I’ve been where you are, and this is where I am now,” Mr Bourne says.
And if during chemotherapy, they are finding it difficult to walk to the end of the block, “if you set small targets and persist, you can make some headway,” he adds.
Eventually, Mr Bourne dropped in a local Taekwondo class, in the Glasgow suburb of Uddingston where he now lives.
The sport had always interested him.
On his next visit to his oncologist, his doctor asked “do you have any questions?”
He asked if he would have any objection to him starting Taekwondo.
“He just sort of looked at me for a moment, and said I’ve never been asked that by a patient,” he says.
As it happens, Mr Bourne just earned his yellow belt.