Blog Article

Calling on the crowd to beat cancer sooner

Calling on the crowd to beat cancer sooner

February 07 2014

By Holly Winman
  • Health

- A closer look at NT100 ‘one to watch’ Cell Slider by Hannah Keartland of Cancer Research UK

The beginning of our citizen science journey

Our Cancer Research UK scientists struggle to analyse the huge amounts of data they have to deal with as quickly as they’d like – it can take years. A lot of this analysis needs to be done by the human eye and, although some automated methods exist, these just aren’t reliable enough. The only way to speed up the analysis is to get more people working on it. At the same time, we knew the concept of crowd-sourcing was growing rapidly, so we saw an opportunity. What if we could take advantage of technological advancements and get the general public to help our scientists? This could help speed up their research and so help us develop treatments quicker and ultimately help us find cures for cancer sooner.

We’d seen the great work that Zooniverse were doing using a citizen science approach to analyse astronomy data and we wondered if they’d be able to apply their model to our cancer data – and so began our citizen science journey, towards what would later become Cell Slider.

Cell Slider users are vital in the analysis of cancerous cells

What started with a 48 hour hackathon in London’s Science Museum, resulted in us launching our first project in October 2012. To see what happened at the hackathon at the London Science Museum, watch this video.

Cell Slider makes the potential to accelerate research huge. To date, we’ve had more than two million classifications – some of these have been done by people who’ve used other Zooniverse products, some are existing Cancer Research UK supporters, and we’ve also attracted new citizen scientists as a result of press coverage, social media and Facebook advertising. 

Scientific impact

One of the interesting challenges we’ve faced with Cell Slider is nervousness from the public – “how can someone with no medical training analyse cancer cells?”  they ask. The trick is in the numbers. We don’t just have one citizen scientist looking at each slide – we have many, and through having thousands and thousands of people looking at the data we can ensure its accuracy.

In fact, initial indications are that the citizen scientists have a good level of agreement with our pathologists yet our citizen scientists have been able to analyse data six times faster than researchers. In just three months they had analysed data which took a single pathologist 18 months. The type of data that Cell Slider analyses is a research area where there’s a huge bottleneck – so anything that can be done to release it is valuable.

Play to Cure: Genes in Space

Following the success of Cell Slider, we wanted to do something bigger and more ambitious – something which had never been done before. We noticed the number of people who were playing mobile games and wondered if they could analyse cancer data at the same time. To develop this idea, we held a GameJam event in March 2013, where we brought Cancer Research UK scientists together with developers, academics, gamers and designers for a weekend to help develop mobile phone games which could solve a real scientific problem. Here’s what went on.

Play to Cure: Genes in Space will generate vital data analysis

We were looking for a game which could translate genetic data into an engaging and playable format, and most importantly a game that could generate robust scientific analysis. After 48 sleep deprived hours, 12 gaming prototypes were made. Our scientists then worked closely with game experts, Guerilla Tea, to develop Play to Cure: Genes in Space – a fun mobile game that will generate useful data for our scientists and help accelerate cancer research. We want anyone, anywhere and of any age to download the game. Imagine the impact we could have if every single person with a smart phone played the game for just two minutes – whether they’re in the queue at the supermarket, sitting on the bus or waiting for their dinner to cook. Because the incredibly exciting thing about this game is that you’re not just playing a game – you’re analysing genetic data and contributing to cancer research.

Looking to the future, we’re working on our strategy for all Cancer Research UK’s citizen science activity, but our main objective will always be to support our citizen scientists in solving real science problems – particularly in areas where the biggest impact can be made and where we bring forward the day when all cancers are cured.

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