If you could recruit a helping hand for some of the more time-consuming parts of your day to day job, would you accept it?
Well, groups of our researchers are doing just that by enlisting the help of the world’s Citizen Scientists – offering the opportunity to help analyse vast amounts of research data – and ultimately accelerating their progress.
From our Cell Slider project to the intergalactic adventure of our mobile game Play to Cure: Genes in Space, our Citizen Scientists have been getting involved in lots of different projects. And now we’ve added one more game to our repertoire: Reverse The Odds.
So how does it work? We spoke to one of our researchers, Dr Anne Kiltie, whose team are among a few groups of researchers asking the public to help analyse their samples through our new game. Watch Anne talk about the project in the video above, and explore the impact of our new game below.
A tough choice
Anne and her team in Oxford are working on bladder cancer, looking at new ways of combining radiotherapy treatments with drugs that hijack how cancer cells handle damage to their DNA.
But they’re also interested in ‘biomarkers’ – molecules found in cancer cells that offer a red flag for how a cell may behave based on the amount produced by the cell, or in the case of molecules that drive cancer growth, whether or not these marker molecules are inappropriately ‘switched-on’.
This interest stems from an important treatment decision facing people whose bladder cancer has begun to spread into the muscle of the bladder wall – should they opt for surgery to remove their bladder, or a course of radiotherapy? Both treatments have their challenges and long term implications for patients. “It’s actually a life-changing event for them,” Anne explains.
But information to help make this decision is lacking.
Crucially, Anne’s team are scouring tumour samples for biomarkers that could indicate whether a patient will respond better to surgery or radiotherapy. Something she hopes will help make the treatment decision a little easier, and ultimately improve survival for people with bladder cancer in the future.
But to do this they need to test a lot of potential biomarkers in a lot of bladder cancer samples. And this is where Anne – along with other researchers working on different types of cancer – hopes that our Citizen Scientists can help.
The search for a biomarker
“We have over 800 samples from more than 300 bladder cancer patients,” says Anne. The team takes tiny pieces of these tumour samples – known as ‘cores’ – and sets them in blocks of wax so they can cut extremely thin slices of the samples to image on a microscope.
The researchers take these slices and use special dyes to highlight key proteins found inside the cells that the team think may make good biomarkers for bladder cancer. And it’s these coloured images that will feature in our latest game – where our Citizen Scientists (following a simple tutorial) will be asked questions like:
- How many cancer cells do you see?
- How many cells are blue?
- How strongly are these cells glowing?
Importantly, Anne points out, each of these samples has come from patients’ bladder tumours before they receive radiotherapy or have their bladder removed.
And as the samples are from patients who were subsequently treated, the team will be able to look at the differences between the levels of the different markers and how well they responded to different treatment.
“We would then follow up the most promising markers in more tumour samples to be sure they are accurate,” says Anne.
And in the future this could be used to design new clinical trials to aid decisions around bladder cancer treatment.
The true power of Citizen Science comes from the sheer number of people analysing the samples.
Anne tells us that analysing the images largely depends on pattern recognition, something the human eye is particularly good at. But you don’t need to be a “qualified pathologist or experienced scientist” to do this, she adds.
“Normally three of us would look at the images, but the great impact that Citizen Scientists have is that rather than just having three of them, we potentially have thousands of them, so any slight variations can be ironed out.”
And with so many eyes on their samples the team will be able to process many more images than they would alone – opening up opportunities to test more interesting molecules than ever before.
What about accuracy?
This is an important question, and one we get asked a lot when it comes to Citizen Science.
First of all it’s important to reemphasise that the samples Anne is providing for Reverse The Odds are from patients who have already been treated – so the analysis you provide by playing the game won’t impact on how patients are treated today.
The images will also been seen by lots of people, and the more people that play the game the more accurate the consensus will be.
And as Anne points out, there are some important accuracy checks in place along the way: “We are going to score 10 per cent of the samples ourselves to check we get the same results as our Citizen Scientists.”
“And we’ve already seen encouraging results from our early tests of the game,” she adds.
But we can only capitalise on these early results if people pick up their Smartphones and tablets and join Citizen Scientists across the world in providing vital answers to our scientists’ questions.
Ultimately it’s these answers that will go on to improve bladder cancer treatment – along with treatment for the other cancer types we’ll be analysing with the game – in the future.
Something we believe is worth a few minutes during your daily commute.
Download our game and become a Citizen Scientist
Reverse The Odds has been commissioned by Channel 4 as part of Stand Up To Cancer, and was developed in collaboration with Maverick Television’s multiplatform team and Chunk.