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Cancer Research in the Classroom – Accelerating Cures with the Click of a Mouse

By August 23rd, 2013 at 10:41 am | Comment

This project is part of our Back to School 2013 round-up of projects. Read more about them!

CellBreast cancer is the single most common cancer in women worldwide with roughly 1 in 8 women developing the disease each year. Chances are, a friend or family member is coping with this diagnosis right now. Following Angelina Jolie’s announcement earlier this year about her family’s struggle with breast cancer and her treatment choices, advances in biomedical research and personalized medicine increasingly hold the promise of a day when cancer is cured. How do scientists find the clues buried within tumor samples?

Cell Slider, a collaboration between Cancer Research UK and Zooniverse, is the first citizen scientist project whose goal is to speed up cancer research by enlisting citizen scientists to analyze real tumor samples. According to Professor Andrew Handby, a CRUK scientist from the University of Leeds who helped develop Cell Slider, “Computers can only go so far – they can pick up obvious trends but only the human eye can spot subtleties that have, in the past, lead to important serendipitous discoveries… Cell Slider makes our data accessible – it’s not just for scientists and computer geeks – everyone can play their part in curing cancer.”

Identify normal blood and tissue cells as well as irregular cancer cells in Cell Slider.

Identify normal blood and tissue cells as well as irregular cancer cells in Cell Slider.

Ideal for secondary school science classes, Cell Slider is a real-life citizen scientist project that uses the same methods researchers use everyday in the laboratory to identify cancer cells. Students are introduced to some of the common core principles in life sciences, including basic cell types and shapes, while developing analytical and critical thinking skills. You don’t have to be a scientist to participate in this project; simple mouse clicks help researchers around the world find new cancer treatments buried in simple tumor samples.

During a brief tutorial, students are introduced to the three cell types typically seen on the microscope slides (white blood cells, tissue cells, and cancer cells), taught to identify normal and cancer cells based on shape and staining, then asked to analyze real images of breast cancer tumors. A special yellow dye that sticks to oestrogen receptor (ER) helps identify cells with excessive ER and candidates for cancer treatments using hormonal therapies such as tamoxifen. Once the irregularly shaped, yellow-stained, cancer cells are identified you estimate their number and how strongly they are stained through a matching game. Using this data, researchers are beginning to understand the connections between molecules found on cancer cells and the effects of common treatments on the outcome of the disease.

“Eventually, we hope to be able to identify different types of breast, and other, cancers and find out how these different types respond to different treatments,” said Professor Paul Pharoah, a CRUK scientist from Cambridge University who helped develop Cell Slider. “This will enable us to match up women with the right cancer drugs based on their tumor type. We hope that this personalized medicine approach would be a reality in years to come, but this computer program could make it a reality sooner than any of us had imagined possible.”

Since its launch in October 2012, more than 860,000 citizen scientists from around the world have analyzed over 1.7 million images. Could we be just your mouse click away from a cure?

Photo : Cell Slider

Dr Melinda T. Hough is a freelance science advocate and writer.  Her previous work has included a Mirzayan Science and Technology Graduate Policy Fellowship at the National Academy of Sciences (2012), co-development of several of the final science policy questions with (2012), consulting on the development of the Seattle Science Festival EXPO day (2012), contributing photographer for JF Derry’s book “Darwin in Scotland” (2010) and outreach projects to numerous to count.  Not content to stay stateside, Melinda received a B.S in Microbiology from the University of Washington (2001) before moving to Edinburgh, Scotland where she received a MSc (2002) and PhD (2008) from the University of Edinburgh trying to understand how antibiotics kill bacteria.  Naturally curious, it is hard to tear Melinda away from science; but if you can, she might be found exploring, often behind the lens of her Nikon D80, training for two half-marathons, or plotting her next epic adventure.