CROWDSOURCING A CURE FOR CANCER
ONE MOUSE CLICK AT A TIME
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.
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.
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.