Big Data: A Smart Approach to Fighting Cancer

May 15, 2018
By: Marissa Camilli

While health and fitness trackers have long been a staple component in the app ecosystem, a new app developed by Imperial College London (ICL) and the Vodafone Foundation (the charitable arm of the telecoms giant) is taking the business of safeguarding health to a whole new level.


The DreamLab App has been designed to employ the computing power of thousands of smartphones to find links that could match the genetic profiles of patients to the optimal mix of cancer treatment drugs and lead to bespoke treatments based on individuals’ specific needs. It is hoped that this approach will help speed up access to the most effective drugs, to treat cancer more quickly and efficiently.

Highlighting the benefits of mobile cloud-based processing, it has been suggested that a single desktop device with an eight-core processor running 24-hours a day, could take upwards of 300 years to process the data required to calculate efficient drug treatments. However, the combined efforts of 100,000 smartphones running just six hours per day (essentially when their owners are sleeping) could bring the process down to just three months.

Big Data

Projects like DreamLab enable researchers to interrogate and put to good use huge amounts of data that would previously have been discarded.

Speaking to journalists (, Kiril Veselkov from ICL’s Department of Surgery and Cancer said: “We are currently generating huge volumes of health data around the world every day, but just a fraction of this is being put to use.”

Veselkov continued: “By harnessing the processing power of thousands of smartphones, we can tap into this invaluable resource and look for clues in the datasets. Ultimately, this could help us to make better use of existing drugs and find more effective combinations of drugs tailored to patients, thereby improving treatments.”

Saving Lives

Vodafone Foundation director Andrew Davidson is under no illusion about the importance of this project and said: “This innovative app gives everyone the chance to play a part in the fight against cancer while they sleep. We hope DreamLab will significantly increase the speed at which Imperial College and other researchers are able to make breakthroughs in cancer research, ultimately saving lives.”

Societal Impact

Echoing the statements of Veselkov and Davidson, ICL’s vice-president of innovation David Gann said: “Through harnessing distributed computing power, DreamLab is helping to make personalised medicine a reality. This project demonstrates how Imperial’s innovative research partnerships with corporate partners and members of the public are working together to tackle some of the biggest problems we face today, generating real societal impact.”

New Approach

While utilising distributed computing power isn’t a new phenomenon, there are numerous projects using volunteers’ redundant computing power to do everything from mining cryptocurrencies for charitable donations, to spotting incoming asteroids and even searching for extra-terrestrial life – the scope for performing such tasks via mobile devices is staggering.

With more than 1.5 billion smartphones sold globally in 2017, compared to just 260 million personal computers (a market which has been in decline for more than five years), the potential spare (and ever increasing) computing power available via smart devices is perhaps a grossly untapped reserve.

A Global Solution to Local Problems

It’s not just global issues like the treatment of specific diseases that stand to benefit from advances in distributed computing power, the sheer scale of smartphone ownership around the world means the combined power of multiple devices could be put to work to solve complex local issues relating to the environment, population, business, or any other issue that requires large scale data crunching. This could be particularly useful in emerging economies where traditional technological infrastructure isn’t always so reliable or even readily available.

The fact that apps like DreamLab can be configured to run only during a device’s downtime, meaning it doesn’t impact on the device’s performance, means it’s hard to imagine any downside to such initiatives.

Packing a Powerful Punch

While the diminutive size of the smartphone in your pocket might make some cynics doubt the potential of such projects, it’s worth remembering that that very same smartphone is thousands of times more powerful than the computers that put the first men on the moon. However, to use a more realistic comparison, a mobile device like the Samsung Galaxy S9 smartphone already packs a similar punch in terms of computing power to a mid-range laptop.

It’s also refreshing to learn, especially following the recent data mining scandals involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, how big business can work alongside the scientific community to put big data to use in a way that benefits everyone.

Marissa Camilli
By Marissa Camilli
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