When you use the DreamLab app, your phone becomes a supercomputer in the fight against cancer. But what exactly is it doing?

DreamLab, the app that turns your phone into a supercomputer in the fight against cancer, is now into its all-important second phase. That means more calculations, more insights, and smarter ways of monitoring which drug treatments work best in which combinations. But – hang on – how does it actually work?

If you’ve already got DreamLab installed, and you regularly #SleepLikeAHero, you may be wondering exactly what the science is behind the figures. Well, wonder no more: here’s what’s going on behind your smartphone’s screen…

What’s your phone doing?

When we say that DreamLab transforms your phone into a ‘supercomputer’, we mean it. More accurately, though, your smartphone acts like one part of a giant, cloud-based brain. Once the app checks that your phone’s plugged in and charging (so it can’t inadvertently drain your battery) calculations will start whizzing between your handset and DreamLab’s central system at lightning speed – either over WiFi or your mobile data connection.

You probably already know the aim here: ‘Drugs Repurposing Using Grids of Smartphones’, (or Project DRUGS for short) is focused on finding new, genetically-tailored individual drug recommendations that can help treat certain cancers. But, as with most things in the scientific community, at its base level that requires lots and lots of mathematics.

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In nitty-gritty terms, your phone is acting as a specially-tuned calculator dozens – or even hundreds – of times per night. Once the app is powered (either automatically if using an Android or manually on an iPhone), DreamLab HQ at Imperial College London sends your phone two small ‘packages’ of mathematical data – each just a couple of Megabytes in size.

When these packages land in the DreamLab app, they’re crunched and compared against one-another using the app’s in-built algorithm. Think of it like a Sudoku puzzle – the DreamLab app gets sent a bunch of them during the course of the night, which it’s designed to solve and send back. Once that’s done – and your phone has fired the result back to the lab – it waits for the next lot of data. It’s simple yet smart, but the key is in the sheer scale of the operation, with phones around the UK all computing at once.

What’s happening back at DreamLab HQ?

Beyond creating the algorithm that powers DreamLab in the first place, the team of researchers at Imperial College London have also worked to set up all those packages and pairs of data sets, queue them up, and store the results in a way that can then be learned from.

We’re talking about massive amounts of data here, on both the input and output side of things, with more being created every night. That’s because the work phones like yours are doing with DreamLab, concurrently and around the UK, would take desktop PC hundreds of years to complete. And there’s still loads to do.

We recently smashed past the five million calculations mark and are into the all-important phase two, which sees the data narrow in on findings from DreamLab’s initial findings. The Project DRUGS team at Imperial College, meanwhile, are far from resting on their laurels: they’re on a constant mission to make the process run ever more smoothly…

Challenges, tweaks, and fine-tuning the future

With anything this complex, there’s an awful lot of variables to consider, to tweak and to fine-tune. And that’s especially true when you’re dealing with a system that needs to work on pretty much every type of smartphone out there; DreamLab now has over 70,000 users, each using a different kind of phone.

This creates all sorts of fun challenges, because different phone manufacturers and models all have different processing power, connection speeds, maximum CPU temperatures and so much more besides. As a result, DreamLab has to intelligently cope with these varying factors while trying to get the best out of each device.

It’s why a night of calculations can range from as few as 10 to as many as 200.Imperial’s researchers are constantly working to maximise the amount of processing your phone can do, with the least amount of data transferred.

Likewise, , DreamLab HQ needs to use a smart server (the platform storing the data and enabling requests to and from your app) that scales up or down depending on demand. That means that if the system suddenly has loads of phones all requesting new data packages to calculate at once, the bandwidth scales up automatically to meet the demand.

All in all, it’s seriously clever stuff, with a lot of deeply scientific knowhow behind the tech that makes DreamLab work. All you need to do to play your part is install the app, put your phone on charge and head to bed. Sounds like a pretty good deal to us.

Learn more about Phase Two… What does DreamLab’s second phase mean for the future of cancer research? Find out here.