Cancer citizen science app developed by CRUK
- Thursday, 7th March 2013
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Cancer Research UK (CRUK) has teamed up with technology gurus from Amazon Web Services, Facebook, and Google in a bid to enlist citizen scientists for cancer research. The public has been invited to help identify cells carrying carcinogenic mutations in their DNA sequences via the Cell Slider website, but the charity hopes to release a new mobile gaming application called GeneRun this summer, allowing users to probe the massive amount of genetic material available and identify abnormalities. With researchers now able to classify 10 subtypes of breast cancer, much progress has been made in the determination of genetic drivers, but the limiting factor is information analysis. The sheer quantity of data requires more time to process than researchers are able to devote, in particular due to the fact that the human eye is needed to distinguish some of the more subtle changes that evade technological detection.
Communication technologies have made it possible to enlist the help and interest of a far greater number of people. Successful citizen science initiatives include several Zooniverse projects, which began with Galaxy Zoo in 2007: with a dataset made up of a million galaxies, the public was invited to help classify them according to their shapes. Cell Slider, created by CRUK and the Zooniverse team and launched as a Beta test in October 2012, is the first interactive website that allows anyone to study real images of tumour samples from research archives. According to the website, over 684,000 images have already been analysed. Initially the site used only breast cancer samples, with yellow staining indicating levels of oestrogen receptor protein. It later expanded the dataset to include other types of cancer and different colours representing other biomarkers. The analysis time for some clinical trial data has already been reduced from 1.5 years to just 3 months.
The charity’s vision for accelerating science outside of the lab goes much further. Raw genetic data, provided by CRUK, was converted into a gaming format at special event, GameJam, held this past weekend from March 1-3, 2013. Google sponsored and hosted the hack-a-thon at their campus in the heart of East London’s Tech City. By the end of the weekend, there were 9 finished games and 12 working prototypes of overwhelming quality. Over the course of this week, Chris Lintott from the Citizen Science Alliance and other scientists will thoroughly test all prototypes for scientific accuracy and the potential to attract players. The social aspect of the game is a priority, so people can share it, and it must have a rewards system to encourage repeated use. The finished product is intended to follow a more traditional game format, so that the player would not necessarily be aware they are spotting genetic mutations.
The project aims to significantly accelerate research in the field and aid the development of treatments tailored to tumours’ genetic fingerprint. Professor Carlos Caldas, senior group leader at the CRUK Cambridge Institute, commented: “By harnessing the collective power of citizen scientists we’ll accelerate the discovery of new ways to diagnose and treat cancer much more precisely”. You can follow the conversation on Twitter with the hastag #CRUKgame. In the meantime, citizen scientists can enter the Cell Slider website to join the fight from their computers.
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