CROWD­SOURC­ING A CURE FOR CAN­CER

ONE MOUSE CLICK AT A TIME

Guru Magazine - - Contents - DEN­NIS HE DAVID SMITH

Go on, ad­mit it. You love play­ing An­gry Birds while sit­ting on the toi­let. Get pre­pared to use your idle time for some­thing no­bler: cur­ing can­cer. Click­ing on some multi-coloured balls could help save lives. Tap to page 29 to find out how.

We have a love-hate re­la­tion­ship with health scare sto­ries. We love find­ing out what can hap­pen in­side our body. But we also hate th­ese sto­ries be­cause the thought of what can go wrong scares us silly. On ra­dio and TV, in news­pa­pers and on the In­ter­net, at hos­pi­tals and in doc­tors’ of­fices, medics can’t help but hit us with a bru­tal truth: the older we get, the more likely we are to get a nasty ill­ness – like can­cer. But Den­nis He and David Smith dis­cuss how this story just might have a happy end­ing af­ter all… We like to think of our body be­ing whole, but it is ac­tu­ally made up of 300 tril­lion tiny cells, all work­ing to­gether har­mo­niously. (Well, for most of the time.) How­ever, if you wait long enough at least one of th­ese cells might de­velop a fault. In can­cer, it will lose its ‘off switch’ and start di­vid­ing un­con­trol­lably, even­tu­ally re­sult­ing in a tu­mor. Apart from try­ing to lead a healthy life or raise money for can­cer re­search, there’s not much any of us can do about this in­evitabil­ity. Each of us has to wait pa­tiently while med­i­cal re­searchers try to find a cure – hope­fully in our life­time. But no longer must we wait pas­sively: new online tools are turn­ing the ta­bles and giv­ing or­di­nary peo­ple – you and me – the

power to beat can­cer.

Web 3.0 – power to the peo­ple

The 1990s are re­mem­bered as the decade when the In­ter­net en­tered ev­ery­day life. The 2000s have been known for the birth of ‘ Web 2.0’ – when the In­ter­net be­came truly in­ter­ac­tive. Sim­i­larly, the 2010s may well be re­mem­bered as the ‘decade of the crowd’ – the era of crowd­sourc­ing. Crowd­sourc­ing has achieved some of the In­ter­net’s great­est suc­cesses. Take, for in­stance, Wikipedia – a mas­sive, free online en­cy­clo­pe­dia, which is cu­rated by mil­lions of vol­un­teers and serves to keep us glued to our iPhones on trivia night. Mean­while, ‘crowd­fund­ing’ sites like Kick­starter now of­fer a plat­form for as­pir­ing en­trepreneurs – artists, writ­ers, film mak­ers, and just about any­one with an idea – to pitch their projects to the world. This web ven­ture has al­ready raised over $100 mil­lion (USD) for var­i­ous projects around the world. Not bad for a ‘kick-start’. Sci­en­tists have also been get­ting a piece of the crowd­sourc­ing ac­tion. Online sites, such as the Tree of Life Web Project, which de­scribes and doc­u­ments our planet’s bio­di­ver­sity, is pow­ered by online col­lab­o­ra­tion. And now any­one who wants to see an end to can­cer can play their part with Cell Slider, a web­site de­vel­oped by Can­cer Re­search UK which har­nesses civil­ian brain­power in an ef­fort to find can­cer treat­ments.

Break­ing the bot­tle­neck with Cell Slider

When some­one is first given a can­cer di­ag­no­sis, cell sam­ples are col­lected from the tu­mour and sent to a lab for anal­y­sis. Trained tech­ni­cians then spend long, gru­el­ing hours sort­ing through th­ese sam­ples, flag­ging up any that may have can­cer­ous cells. Such is the time-con­sum­ing na­ture of the work that many hos­pi­tals and clin­ics are over­whelmed and have ac­cu­mu­lated huge back­logs of un­anal­ysed im­ages: ter­abytes of cel­lu­lar data sit wait­ing to be pro­cessed. What’s more, al­though it’s not a dif­fi­cult thing to do, it hasn’t yet been au­to­mated: our eyes and mind are faster and more ac­cu­rate at analysing im­ages than any com­puter. What this does mean, though, is that pretty much any­one with good eye­sight and a ba­sic knowl­edge of what to look for can an­a­lyse cell slides – a task that, at heart, sim­ply in­volves color dis­tinc­tion, shape iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, and count­ing. It is a pow­er­ful way for the In­ter­net­con­nected masses to make an in­valu­able con­tri-

bu­tion to the bat­tle against can­cer. In essence, each im­age rep­re­sents one part of a per­son’s jour­ney with can­cer. And each an­a­lysed im­age gives more in­for­ma­tion on how well can­cer treat­ments, new and old, are work­ing. The Cell Slider web­site at­tracts would-be col­lab­o­ra­tors through a sleek and in­tu­itive in­ter­face. Like any video game, it has an in­tro­duc­tory tu­to­rial to show you what you are look­ing for in each im­age – ‘play­ing the game’ means look­ing at mi­cro­scope im­ages of real tis­sue sam­ples taken from real peo­ple. Each cell slide has a va­ri­ety of cells (dif­fer­ent coloured blobs), which you must dis­tin­guish be­tween, keep­ing a par­tic­u­lar eye out for any yel­low-col­ored can­cer cells. At present, most of the im­ages on Cell Slider are from women with breast can­cer, but there are plans to ex­pand the site to in­clude other types of can­cers. And don’t worry, the fate of pa­tients is not rest­ing on any one user: each slide gets an­a­lysed mul­ti­ple times by dif­fer­ent users, and many are re-re­viewed by a cer­ti­fied tech­ni­cian. Sta­tis­ti­cally speak­ing, the slides with higher con­cen­tra­tions of yel­low stain – those most likely to be in­dica­tive of can­cer – are more likely to be dou­ble-checked by other keen civil­ian sci­en­tists.

Build­ing mo­men­tum

So far, Cell Slider is go­ing great guns and has truly caught the imag­i­na­tion of the ‘crowd’. Af­ter be­ing online for about a year, more than 1.9 mil­lion im­ages have been an­a­lysed. What’s more, all the time spent by our help­ful cit­i­zen sci­en­tists on Cell Slider has freed up time for tech­ni­cians to spend on more de­mand­ing tasks. The data from th­ese re­sults have not yet been pub­lished, but the fact that there is an out­let for the ev­ery­day per­son to aid in re­search is a promis­ing start. We can only hope that this will prompt fu­ture in­no­va­tions that al­low for even more ‘cit­i­zen sci­en­tists’ to take a more ac­tive role in fight­ing disease. The Cell Slider ini­tia­tive is all about giv­ing power to the masses, not about in­di­vid­ual recog­ni­tion: if you par­tic­i­pate you won’t re­ceive any money, credit in aca­demic pa­pers, or get points to­wards any type of re­ward. (See side­box on the next page for al­ter­na­tive crowd­sourc­ing web­sites that do). But what you will re­ceive is com­fort from the knowl­edge that you’ve done some­thing that could greatly ben­e­fit the lives of

oth­ers the world over – and that’s the kind of feel­ing money can’t buy.

Ref­er­ences

Click to Cure – Can­cer Re­search UK and Zooni­verse Cell Slider.

The Tree of Life Web Project. ETeRNA, an online game, helps build a new RNA ware­house – NY­Times.com.

Video games as­sist biology re­search.

What is Kick­starter?

Pro­tein Fold­ing Game – fold.it. Crowd­sourc­ing bio­chem­istry and molec­u­lar biology.

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