Help solve cancer whilst you sleep

Naureen Nashid /
Jun 6, 2018 / Opinion

The whole concept, or idea, of sleeping is that we’re not doing anything. Our muscles are temporarily paralysed while our brain’s activity slows down the more we drift into deeper sleep. But imagine actually doing something extremely significant while you’re sleeping.  

DreamLab, a phone application created in Australia by The Garvan Institute of Medical Research, uses the processing power of your phone while you sleep to help solve cancer. They created this app as a way to speed up their cancer research. The way it works is that you download the app onto your smartphone and then charge the phone while you sleep. Through the phone’s computing power, the results are sent to the Garvan Institute to help with their research.

Seems easy enough!

But why hasn’t something like this come out sooner? Why haven’t our phones gotten an update that helps research cancer?

After all, DreamLab has already managed to gather data that will help uncover treatments for cancer in half the time with Garvan’s supercomputer. Based on the research, a network of 100,000 smartphones running six hours a night could do the research in three months, whereas a desktop computer with an eight-core processor running 24-hours a day would likely take around 300 years to process all the data.

This all started when the institute began a massive research project called Project Decode and Project Genetic Profile. Each of these projects have over 26 million different micro-problems that need to be calculated to understand the data. Upon downloading this app, you’re essentially downloading one of those 26 million different micro-problems to calculate with your phone’s computing power, as explained above. A new smartphone can do up to 60 calculations, which solves up to 24,000 problems in only six hours if it is fully charged and plugged in.

An example of a problem would be comparing a small part of genetic information from both a breast cancer patient and a pancreatic patient. With the use of a special algorithm, DreamLab carries out a calculation to compare the results and understand the similarities and differences between the two patients.  If, for example, calculations show that there are similarities within the DNA profiles, the two patients may respond to the same drug or medication despite having different types of diseases.

The end goal of this project is to understand cancer based on a patient’s DNA profile instead of the tissue in which their cancer started. It’s definitely a new approach in trying to find cures for these diseases.

Even though this is an Australian based app, the Vodafone Foundation and researchers at Imperial College London have teamed up to bring this app into the UK. This version was developed by the Vodafone Foundation as a part of the project DRUGS, aka Drug Repositioning Using Grids of Smartphones. Dr. Kirill Veselkov from Imperial’s Department of Surgery & Cancer is leading this project and he has designed an algorithm that breaks down these huge sets of data into small pieces. The end goal is similar to that of the Australian version of the app – identifying similar genetic profiles to find medication that might treat patients of two types of cancer.

DreamLab is free to download in the App Store as well as free to use for Vodafone customers. It does not cut into monthly data plans and can be used across other networks, allowing users to choose how much data they wish to give to the app. They can also choose to connect via Wi-Fi.

Through findings like these, it can definitely change a person’s life and help them survive, fighting off whatever deadly disease they’re suffering from. Our phones are a constant in our lives while we’re awake. Whether it’s for work, pleasure, or something else, we’re glued to them. Smartphones, in particular, have us spoiled with apps that do pretty much everything for us, and we get updates that makes living our day to day lives easier and more entertaining. The only reprieve our tiny machines might have is when we sleep, so why not put them to good use then too? By doing so, you might save a life.

Words by Naureen Nashid

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