Taking Cancer Research To The Streets? There's An App For That
By Lori Clapper, Editor
On a flight back from a recent press event, I decided to pass the time by reading a copy of United Airline’s in-flight magazine Hemispheres. I admit I don’t always pick up these publications when I travel, but perhaps it was serendipitous that I forgot my own book at home this time. As I flipped through the pages, one particular article caught my attention. It discussed the heightened interest and potential growth of citizen science — using ordinary people to help advance research. This story featured a 29-year-old teacher from the Netherlands who — out of mere curiosity about astronomy — did some research as a hobby, and discovered a “never-seen-before gas cloud wrapped around a former galaxy 730 million light years from Earth.”
So, what does this have to do with cancer research? Well, I was so intrigued by this citizen scientist concept, that I returned to my office and immediately searched the web to see what I could dig up. And, maybe in another serendipitous moment, I found that Cancer Research UK scientists, the Citizen Science Alliance, and tech gurus from Amazon, Facebook, and Google, held an event called GameJam in London March 1 to 3. The reason for this forum was to design and develop a mobile game to accelerate cures for cancer. The first step in this endeavor was to recruit 40 so-called hackers (programmers, gamers, graphic designers, etc.) to turn Cancer Research UK’s raw gene data into a game called “GeneRun.” Once the mobile app is rolled out, anyone with a smartphone and five extra minutes can enjoy playing a game, while unraveling scientific data. Cancer Research UK CEO Dr. Harpal Kumar said using citizen science can significantly speed up the analysis of data, as experienced in their first collaboration with the Citizen Science Alliance – a game called “Cell Slider,” which was beta tested in October 2012 to analyze archived breast cancer tissue samples. “Cell Slider” presents cancer tumor images for analysis in the form of the game of snap. A tutorial guides the player on which cells to analyze and which ones to ignore. Scientists will then have access to the pinpointed trends, as people engage in the app. In fact, Cancer Research UK now reports “Cell Slider” has reduced the analysis time for some of their clinical trials data from 18 to 3 months.
Professor Carlos Caldas, senior group leader at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, added that even with an increased understanding of the genetics of cancer, researchers still don’t know why some drugs work and some don’t. Part of the reason for this is technological advances in genetic research produce mountainous amounts of data very quickly. The downside is that much of that data needs examined by a person, which is not so fast. However, the human eye detects subtle changes in data that machines can’t, possibly uncovering new drivers of the disease. That’s where serendipity comes back into the picture. With a limited number of scientists sifting through the data, it could take years to sort through all of the information. Through the mobile app, anyone could play the game and stumble upon a breakthrough. “By harnessing the collective power of citizen scientists, we’ll accelerate the discovery of new ways to diagnose and treat cancer much more precisely,” Caldas said.
I say kudos to innovative research ideas that reach today’s digital generation — and give ordinary people the chance to make a difference.
What do you think of this concept? Would your company ever consider using citizen scientists as a part of your research?