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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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