Monthly Archives: December 2015

Cancer Research UK’s Citizen Science Programme – Bringing kinder treatments to clinics, sooner

Reverse The Odds

A potentially ineffective course of radiotherapy, or life-altering bladder removal surgery; that’s the choice patients with invasive bladder cancer face. Both treatments can be highly effective for some patients. We just don’t know for whom. Or why. With so much uncertainty involved, it’s an uneasy gamble for doctors, families and, most of all, patients.

But what if we could accurately predict whether a patient will respond well to radiotherapy or whether they should consider surgery as a first course of action?

Dr Anne Kiltie and her team in Oxford are working to find the answer – and thanks to Cancer Research UK’s Citizen Science Programme, it’s set to be largest study of its kind.

All of our cells produce proteins – important molecules that make our cells function. But under pathophysiological conditions such as cancer, the proteins produced by our cells change. It’s these changes that Anne is hoping to find, to identify protein ‘biomarkers’ being produced by the cancer cells. These biomarkers act as clues to how those cancer cells are behaving and ultimately revealing which treatment will target them best. But searching for these biomarkers is no easy task, and with over 800 tumour samples from more than 300 bladder cancer patients and 14 different biomarkers to screen, Anne and her team needed help.

Help has come in the form of over 120,000 citizen scientists from 197 countries across the world.

Anne’s data is being analysed by people all over the world, thanks to Reverse The Odds. This free mobile game crowd-sources cancer research to members of the public, allowing anyone to analyse the presence of biomarkers in bladder cancer samples – exactly what researchers are doing in the lab.

You don’t need to be a scientist to fight cancer from the front lines.

What makes non-scientists so good at this is that spotting these biomarkers is fundamentally about recognising patterns in images. It’s something that humans are naturally great at – so with the right training anyone can make a useful contribution.

It’s not just cancer research that’s been aided by citizen scientists. Over the last decade citizen science has exploded, with projects now found across all disciplines of science from identifying galaxies (Galaxy Zoo), to spotting birds in your garden (RSPB Big Garden Bird Watch), to puzzle solving the shape of proteins (FoldIt). Citizen science gives everyone the chance to make a valuable contribution to research, irrespective of their experience – and Cancer Research UK were the first to apply this practice to cancer data.

How we keep things accurate

With no scientific training required, how can we be sure the analysis is accurate? In the case of Reverse The Odds there are a number of checks in place to ensure accurate results:

  • Citizen scientists complete a quick tutorial to introduce the different shapes and patterns they will be looking for.
  • Anne and her team score 10 percent of the samples seen by citizen scientists to make sure they are getting the same results.
  • Most importantly, each sample is analysed by multiple citizens scientists, so any variations between the citizens will be picked up, and accurate results will come from the consensus of the many.

The samples in Reverse The Odds are from patients who have already been treated and were taken before they started treatment. By comparing the biomarkers present in these samples and relating it to how patients eventually responded to their treatment, Anne is hoping to find a predictive biomarker. This will mean future bladder cancer patients are able to make a more informed choice when it comes to deciding between radiotherapy and surgery.

How to get involved

There are just 1 million classifications left to complete Anne’s data. If 100,000 people each analyse 10 images Anne will have access to the answers that will improve treatment and survival for bladder cancer patients. Help us reach this goal – download Reverse The Odds now.

If you’ve got an idea for a citizen science project related to the physiology of cancer contact Cancer Research UK’s Citizen Science team:

Cancer Research UK were supported by The Physiological Society Public Engagement Grant to attend The Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition 2015 with their exhibit “Beating cancer: Every cell has a story.” The grant from The Physiological Society was used to fund the development and build of two interactive elements on the exhibit, demonstrating the pioneering circulating tumour cell research happening in the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute.

By Jessica Vasiliou

Changes to Freedom of Information

An independent commission, led by Lord Burns, is working to update the Freedom of Information Act 2000. The Society has responded to the consultation for views on aspects of Freedom of Information with respect to information around the use of animals in research. This is a complicated area governed by UK and EU law which the commission is seeking to simplify. Our response, which can be read here, makes clear the need to limit the administrative burden placed on institutions carrying out research involving the use of animals, and the protection required for detailed proposals of research which carry scientific and commercial confidentiality risks.

The Comprehensive Spending Review

Despite calling science a “personal priority”, George Osborne’s summer budget this June saw it barely mentioned. However, having reviewed public finances and received spending projections from all government departments, 25 November saw the release of the Comprehensive Spending Review, and this time around Osborne’s plan for science in this country was spelt out. Despite warnings leaking from Whitehall that the best the scientific community could hope for was five more years of a flat-cash settlement to the science budget (further eroding the sector’s value due to inflation), the Chancellor surprised by promising real-terms protection to the £4.7 bn annual resource budget. He also stuck with the previously-announced £6.9 bn capital expenditure over the next five years. Innovate UK keeps a flat-cash guarantee to its £165 m funding, though some grants are being converted to loans, the extent of which is unclear. There is some concern that, with the low rate of inflation, the actual degree of increase to science funding will be lower than many hoped. This also does not change the UK’s position as the lowest investor in scientific research among the G8 nations.

Some specific research goals were mentioned with funding promised to work towards them, such as the 100,000 Genomes project and combatting antimicrobial resistance, while the research landscape in general will be reshaped in the image set out by Sir Paul Nurse in his review of the Research Councils. This will involve the creation of an overarching body called Research UK which sits above the Research Councils and facilitates better efficiency and governmental engagement. Concerns have been raised about the watering-down of the Haldane Principle due to this new structure, which contains a ministerial oversight committee. However, it is hoped that advice will flow both ways and lead to a government far better informed around scientific trends and developments.

The Chancellor gave broad outlines in his speech, and while the Spending Review document provides some more detail there are aspects where uncertainty remains over the fine print. The science budget now includes £1.5 bn over five years going to the Global Challenges Fund, which was previously administered by the Department for International Development. The restrictions on allocation of this funding are not known. Further, while the science budget was protected by a ring-fence through the last parliament, changes may have brought other costs into this budget making it need to stretch further. Answers to these points of uncertainty will come along in due course, with many organisations in the science policy sector poring over announcements concerning the implementation of the Spending Review.

The Higher Education Green Paper

On 6 November, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) released its long-awaited Green Paper setting out its intentions to change practices and structures around higher education. The paper, which can be downloaded here, covered a number of topics, introducing many key changes. Its overall emphasis rests on the marketisation of higher education provision, driving up teaching quality to make courses seem more attractive.

  • The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) are to be merged into a new body called the Office for Students (OfS), functioning as a regulator for universities. OfS will have a responsibility to act in the interests of students by ensuring stable, effective governance of universities and value for money in degree provision, as well as ensuring baseline quality in student learning and experience and widening access to higher education.
  • Measures are being introduced to improve teaching quality, primarily the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). Initially this will be a pass/fail exercise based on successful QAA assessment, but in future will have multiple levels, each allowing a greater rise in tuition fees for qualifying institutions. The TEF will be metric-based and focus on student outcomes, diversity/inclusion, retention and other available data in its first incarnations. Despite opposition to the idea, it seems likely that TEF scores will be linked to the ability of universities to raise their course fees, with a higher grade allowing a higher rise (capped at the rate of inflation).
  • Student assessment will be encouraged to use a Grade Point Average (GPA) system, allowing greater distinction to be drawn between students leaving with the same classification of degree.
  • Changes will be made to the Research Excellence Framework (REF) to modernise the process and reduce the burden it places on universities.
  • New higher education institutions (HEIs) will have a faster, simplified process to become recognised universities with access to funding and no student caps. Processes will also be in place for HEIs to leave the marketplace with minimised impact on students. Plans must be in place to allow students to complete their course elsewhere or receive compensation if a degree course is discontinued.
  • Universities may become exempt from Freedom of Information requests, bringing them into line with private higher education providers.

BIS are consulting on the changes laid out in the Green Paper until 15 January 2016. After this point, they will release a White Paper detailing proposed legislation, then, assuming this passes through Parliament, it will become law. These changes are going to affect all research and teaching staff in universities. They will affect all forthcoming students and their families. They will affect some past students through changes to loan repayments! It is imperative they are sensible, proportionate and well-informed. The Society is seeking input from its members on their views towards the proposals, focusing mainly on the Teaching Excellence Framework. You can read a short summary produced by the Royal Society of Biology of the questions in the Green Paper relating to the TEF proposals here. We would be interesting in hearing views on this aspect of the Green Paper or any of its other proposals; please contact with your comments. We will be accepting comments until Friday 8 January; after this point the responses received will form the basis of The Society’s submission to BIS.

What do we mean by Policy?

The Physiological Society aims to represent the interests of its members and the wider scientific community to government and policymakers. It also informs its members and the public on the nature and effects of the policy environment for science. The nature of policy activity means it is an ongoing conversation and a highly collaborative environment.

The Society’s work on policy aims to identify and act upon issues that are of importance to our Members and to physiology as a discipline. We engage with a number of stakeholders, both within and outside of Government, and policymakers, to promote physiology in science and education policy.

Please visit our website or email if you would like further information on The Society’s policy activities.

High intensity interval training does have a role in risk reduction or treatment of disease

Cardiac Exercise Research Group

To av løperne på "Kung Sture" tester kondisen på NextMove kjernefasilitet før St. Olavsloppet. Foto: CERG/Andrea Hegdahl TiltnesThis week the Journal of Physiology published a CrossTalk-series with the topic:  High intensity interval training does have a role in risk reduction or treatment of disease.

Traditionally the effect of exercise training and physical activity on risk of diseases and on their treatment has been studied mostly at low to moderate exercise intensities. However, during the last 15 years a growing body of evidence has suggested that exercise at high intensity may be superior low to moderate intensities in terms of treatment effects of such diseases and risk reduction. Ulrik Wisløff and Øivind Rognmo from K.G. Jebsen Center of Exercise in Medicine, together with Jeff Coombes from University of Queensland, argue for the use of high intensity exercise in this respect. You can read the CrossTalk at

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2015: Understanding Ageing – Round up


This year, The Society’s Theme was ‘Understanding Ageing’ to help raise the profile of physiological research into ageing and degeneration.

As a population we are getting older. Researchers predict that by 2050, in the UK, one in four people will be over 65 years old, as opposed to the current one in six*. an ageing society presents many challenges. The Physiological Society recognises the importance of tackling these challenges, and The Physiological Society’s Members are working hard to elucidate the mechanisms behind ageing and its impact on our body and brain.

Over the year, The Society has engaged in activities across all our teams:

Education and Outreach

As part of our themed year, The Society investigated the physiology of ageing through our education and outreach activities. We hosted a number of public lectures and debates including ‘Space Flight: a model for Human Ageing?’, ‘Forever Young, can we cure ageing?’, ‘The Living Brain’, and ‘Eat Less, Live Longer?’. We also developed hands on activities to encourage members of the public and school children to discuss the topic whilst measuring their muscle strength, memory and reaction rates. The ‘Age Experiments’ made appearances at The Big Bang Fair Birmingham, Big Bang Doncaster, Cheltenham Science Festival, and popped up in Queens Arcade, Cardiff. We sent participants home with their very own reaction rulers so they could get their family, friends, teachers and colleagues involved with our experiments.

As well as festivals and fairs we supported two Night at The Vet College events themed ‘Reproduction’ and ‘Growing up’ which looked at ageing from a different perspective focusing on animals in different stages of life and sponsored the Ageing Zone in ‘I’m a Scientist! Get me out of here!’.


The Journal of Physiology will be publishing two special issues in early 2016 covering the subject of ageing. The first issue will be entitled ‘Cardiovascular and Skeletal Muscle Ageing – Consequences for Longevity’ and the second will focus on the neuroscience of ageing.’

Experimental Physiology compiled a Virtual issue of recent articles related to the subject of Ageing and Degeneration.