Imagine a world where millions of people are helping to find ways to control and cure cancer, from the comfort of their own homes.
Imagine these people taking part in a project which might – one day – become a candidate for the Nobel Prize in medicine.
That’s the vision behind our new ‘citizen science’ project. Launching today, http://www.clicktocure.net/ allows the general public to directly take part in our life-saving work, by actually increasing the pace of cancer research.
So, what’s it all about?
Radical advances in technology have brought new challenges, in the form of huge amounts of biological data. Labs are now generating terabytes of research data which requires urgent analysis; analysis that our scientists are doing every day.
It takes human intuition and the human eye to spot patterns, defects and anomalies – computer algorithms aren’t yet good enough. So our progress is being hindered by the speed with which we can analyse data.
How can we move things forward?
In recent years, various initiatives have attempted to use ‘the crowd’ to drive research forward, be it research on how proteins fold, or the search for extra-terrestrial life.
The trail blazers in this field are an inspirational organisation called the Citizen Science Alliance (CSA).
We were inspired by a CSA astronomy project – Galaxy Zoo – which was trying to classify different galaxies spotted in deep space.
Faced with a deluge of NASA data, a group of astronomers uploaded it for public analysis. Galaxy Zoo’s users made 60,000,000 classifications; the equivalent of employing a single analyst for more than 110 years!
So we wondered whether this model could be used in cancer research.
Hacking to beat cancer
Since February, we’ve been working with the CSA pathologist Professor Andrew Hanby, Cancer Research UK-funded epidemiologist Professor Paul Pharoah, and their teams – along with a team of volunteer web developers who attended a ‘hackathon’ earlier this year – to develop a solution to the challenge faced by huge amounts of biological data.
The result, launched today, is Cell Slider.
Hosted on CSA’s website, Cell Slider presents users with real images of tumour samples for analysis, in the form of a simple game of snap. It presents the data in a way that is accessible to everyone – while maintaining the anonymity of the original sample.
Users are guided through a tutorial that explains which cells to analyse and which ones to ignore. Once cancer cells have been spotted, users are asked to record how many have been stained yellow, and how bright the stain is, by simply clicking on another image that closely matches the sample they are viewing.
This information will be used to look for trends between types of cells and a patient’s response to treatment. Initially, the programme will use breast cancer samples, and the yellow stain will indicate levels of the oestrogen receptor.
Each image of tumour samples will be analysed by several people to ensure that any accidental clicks can be discounted. And, to test how accurate the programme is, researchers will link the samples that have been flagged up by Cell Slider players with anonymised data on treatment and survival to see if it gives results they expect.
Beating cancer from your armchair
We want everyone to be able to get involved, and play their part in beating cancer from the comfort of their own homes. Cell Slider is free to do, and with just a few spare minutes and a few clicks of the mouse, citizen scientists will be accelerating our research.
This truly is a world first. And we hope it will change the face of cancer research as we know it.