Smartphones are being used for a purpose that was never intended - and may have huge benefits.

Thousands of Kiwis are being asked to help seek a cure for cancer by sharing the processing power of their smartphones when in bed at night.

A new phone app, known as Vodafone DreamLab, is aiming to tap into the power of some of the five million smartphones in the country to create a virtual supercomputer that can be used to speed up cancer research.

The app works while people are asleep and charging their phones overnight to help researchers trawl through a mountain of data – needed to help assess cancer risk and treatment based on a patients' DNA profile.

Developed by the Vodafone Foundation, DreamLab will automatically download and resolve problems when phones are idle - helping accelerate research into complex medical issues that could otherwise take years to complete.

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"Due to advances in technology there is now a tsunami of information available to cancer researchers," says Antony Welton, Vodafone New Zealand Foundation chair.

"The challenege for them is finding enough computing power to run the analysis and this is where the app comes in," he says. "A smartphone is really a little computer and DreamLab is a way of harnessing this power when it is not being used," he says.

The app, part of what researchers says is a paradigm shift in cancer research, does not access any personal information, but simply uses a phone's computing power to solve tiny research problems sent from the Australian-based Garvan Institute of Medical Research.

Using a special algorithm, it conducts a calculation, collates the data and returns it to the institute for analysis.

The app has been available in Australia for almost a year and 121,000 people have carried out more than 25 million research calculations. The institute has begun analysing the data generated by DreamLab and is expected to report on its findings next month.

DreamLab, which is launching here today, comes as studies show cancer is now the number one killer in New Zealand. More than 23,000 people are diagnosed every year and that number keeps climbing according to figures released by the Ministry of Health.

Garvan 's chief of infomatics, Dr Warren Kaplan, says DreamLab gives free access to a dedicated virtual super-computer to accelerate cancer research and give more hope to patients and their families.

""There are many important research questions we'd like to ask," he says. "But some need so much computing power that it would cost too much, or take us years and years."

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"Medical research is the key to solving cancer, but one thing slowing progress is the limited access researchers have to supercomputers to crunch their complex data."

Garvan has placed huge research projects in the cloud. Each has over 26 million micro-problems that need calculating in order to understand and make sense of the data.

The projects, which seek to understand cancer based on a patient's DNA profile rather than the tissue in which the disease started, can compare the genetic information of people suffering different types of cancer.

By studying patterns in the similarities and differences between these patients , researchers may be able to show they can respond to the same drug: "If you have an aggressive cancer then getting the right drug matched to your DNA at the right time can make all the difference," says Kaplan.

Kaplan says independent reports show that genomics is driving a paradigm shift in health practices: in the last 15 years the cost of reading a person's DNA sequence – their genome – has plummeted from hundreds of millions of dollars to around the costs of a shoulder MRI.

"This is ushering in a new era of precision healthcare in which treatments, preventions strategies and health advice will reach the right person at the right time," he says.

The institute plans to make all the research code and data publicly available for anyone to use in order to encourage others to explore the data and analytical methods used and to work to possibly improve them.

Vodafone New Zealand Foundation manager Lani Evans says the DreamLab app is free for Vodafone customers but can be used by people on other mobile networks.

"Like other apps you download and use, DreamLab can't take over or gain access to other parts of your phone," she says. "It simply utilises the phone's computing power to solve micro-problems.

"You also don't need to provide any personal information to set it up or use it."

Vodafone and the Vodafone Foundation are urging all New Zealanders to download the app and take part in a nationwide sleep-in on May 18 which encourages staff to not start work until 10am that day, to give an extra hour of cancer-solving sleep.

"We created DreamLab because cancer affects so many Australians and New Zealanders," says Evans. "With smartphones out numbering people in both countries we saw a great opportunity to create a smartphone supercomputer."

For more on how the Vodafone DreamLab app works, how to download it, and what you can do to say goodnight to cancer, head to www.vodafone.co.nz/dreamlab now.

Google Play: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=au.com.vodafone.dreamlabapp
App Store: https://itunes.apple.com/au/app/dreamlab/id1273619275?ls=1&mt=8