Researchers at The Garvan Institute for Medical Research hope to pool processing power and data from thousands of Australian smartphones to tackle cancer research problems.

The institute has teamed up with Vodafone Australia to create an Android-only app called Dreamlab.

Once downloaded, it prompts the smartphone user to pick a research project and nominate how much data quota you’re willing to contribute.

When the phone is charged and idle – likely while the user sleeps – the app “automatically downloads and solves a small cancer research problem, and then sends the result back to Garvan researchers via the Amazon cloud,” Vodafone said.

Current projects that can be supported include breast, prostate, ovarian and / or pancreatic cancer research.

The data contribution can come from either your mobile quota (minimum 50MB contribution) or a home wi-fi network (minimum 250MB).

Mobile data used by Vodafone customers is free, but if you’re with Telstra, Optus or an MVNO and want to contribute, your mobile data comes off your monthly allowance.

The concept of pooling compute power from individuals to create a large resource is known as distributed computing, and has been used to tackle research problems for many years.

One of the earliest examples was SETI@home, which puts idling computers in people’s homes to work analysing radio telescope data for signs of extra-terrestrial intelligence.

The client used by SETI@home to enable this to happen is called Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC). It’s also used by over 60 similar projects.

Dreamlab’s architecture doesn’t appear to be based on BOINC but rather custom code backed by Amazon’s cloud infrastructure.

According to the FAQs:

“Garvan uploads a large research problem to the Amazon Web Services cloud server. Once a user has downloaded and set up the DreamLab app, their phone will download a tiny piece of the research problem (hundreds of KB).

A novel algorithm built by Garvan researchers in the DreamLab app, allows the phone to solve the research problem, using the phone’s computing power. The algorithm enables the comparison of the functional similarities and differences in mutated genes from different cancer patients (de-identified), to enable creation of a library of cancers grouped by their genetic profile.

The result is then sent back from the phone to the cloud server, for the Garvan team to analyse These patterns can help researchers identify subgroups of patients who share similar mutation profiles, who could therefore potentially respond to the same therapies (for example, a patient with pancreatic cancer who has a mutation pattern similar to a breast cancer patient, could respond better to a breast cancer drug).”

Garvan already has a 1280 CPU core supercomputer of its own, but Dreamlab – if taken up – could quickly eclipse its power.

“Based on our tests, 33 new Android devices will analyse the same amount data about as fast as a CPU core of the Garvan’s supercomputer,” Vodafone said.

That would mean if 42,240 new Android device owners – defined as a Galaxy S6 or better - took up Dreamlab, Garvan would effectively have a pooled resource that matched its existing supercomputer.

In reality, the telco has far greater dreams for the app, though the assumptions used in these calculations are unclear.

“With 100,000 users, researchers will be able to crunch data approximately 3000 times faster than the current rate,” Vodafone said in a statement.

“With five million users, that increases to 150 thousand times faster than the current rate.”

Users of a Galaxy S6 or similar could expect their handset to solve a large number of tiny “problems” in just a single night.

“As a guide, a new Android device will solve approximately 1800 tiny research problems [each night] if plugged in and fully charged for six hours,” Vodafone said.

“Over a month, it would use just over 500MB of data.”

Closer to cures

Garvan’s breast cancer unit leader Dr. Samantha Oakes said the Dreamlab compute resource made her “hopeful that we will see cures of certain types of cancer in our lifetime.”

“I was six years old when my brother was suspected of having bone cancer, so I understand the toll this disease takes on patients and their friends and family,” she said.

“The worst thing for those touched by cancer is fear; the fear of the unknown and of what’s to come.

“As a nation who loves their smartphones, we now have a tremendous opportunity to put them to good use and help find a cure for cancer.

“Together, we can come to a greater understanding of how to treat it more swiftly.”