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World’s first citizen science project to speed up cancer research

University of Leeds and University of Cambridge researchers have launched an interactive website with Cancer Research UK, allowing the public to help speed up lifesaving research by accessing data.

At the moment, cancer samples are given special stains that highlight certain molecules as part of research. These molecules could reveal how a patient will respond to treatment. But this process is slow and analysis is mostly done by trained pathologists, who are often also cancer researchers.

The new website – Cell Slider™ – is the first time real cancer data has been turned into a format that can be analysed by the public. By getting as many people as possible to take part, more samples will be analysed faster and more effectively, freeing up scientists to carry out other cancer research.

Professor Andrew Hanby, a Cancer Research UK scientist from the University of Leeds who helped develop the concept said: “We’re being held back by how quickly we can process information on tumour samples. 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, led to important serendipitous discoveries.

“Cell Slider makes our data so accessible – it’s not just for scientists and computer geeks – everyone can play their part in curing cancer from the comfort of their own homes.”

Professor Paul Pharoah, a Cancer Research UK scientist from the University of Cambridge who worked alongside Professor Hanby, said: “We’re really excited to be involved in this world-first project and we’re extremely eager to see what this can do for our research in the future.

“There is information that can transform cancer treatments buried in our data – we just need the manpower to unlock them. We’ve turned our data into something that can be accessed by anyone – you don’t have to be a scientist to carry out this type of cancer research. If we can get millions of people on Cell Slider, we hope to condense what normally takes years of research into months.”

Presenting real images of tumour samples to the world for analysis in the form of a simple game of snap, users will be guided through a tutorial that explains which cells to analyse and which ones to ignore.

Once cancer cells have been spotted by their irregular shape, users will be asked to record how many have been stained yellow and how bright that yellow is by simply clicking on another image that closely matches the sample they are viewing.

This information will be fed back to researchers who will look for trends between types of cells and a patient’s response to treatment.

Initially, the programme will use breast cancer samples. The yellow stain will indicate levels of a protein found on the surface of cancer cells called the oestrogen receptor (ER).

Women can only be treated with hormone therapies, such as tamoxifen, if they have high ER levels. To test how accurate the programme is, researchers will link the samples that have been flagged up with anonymised data on treatment and survival to see if it gives results they expect.

If successful, the project will be expanded to include samples from patients with other types of cancer and colours that represent other biological markers, creating a hugely powerful dataset.

Each image of tumour samples will be analysed by several people to ensure that any accidental clicks can be discounted.

Professor Paul Pharoah continued: “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. This will enable us to match up women with the right cancer drugs based on their tumour type. We hoped that this personalised medicine approach would be a reality in years to come, but this computer programme could make this a reality sooner than any of us had imagined possible.”

David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, said: "Cell Slider is a really exciting and innovative project that will get the public involved in the fight against cancer. I saw the website on a recent visit to the Birmingham Cancer Research UK Centre and was impressed by how easy it is to use and how much it will speed up vital research. It’s another example of how the UK is one step ahead of the rest of the world in coming up with creative ways to solve scientific problems."

Dr Harpal Kumar, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, said: “Getting the public involved in research – or citizen science – recently helped astronomers discover a completely new galaxy and many new planets. We’re asking people across the world to help us save lives from cancer by giving just a few minutes of their time to log onto Cell Slider and help our scientists unearth information that would usually take years to discover. Go to http://www.clicktocure.net/ to find out more and play your part in helping us bring forward the day when all cancers are cured.”

The Cell Slider™ website can be found at http://www.clicktocure.net/.

For further information

Professor Andrew Hanby is available for interview. Please contact Rachel Barson, University of Leeds, +44 (0)113 3432060, r.barson@leeds.ac.uk

For the Cancer Research UK press office, please contact Rachel Gonzaga on 0203 469 8300

For more information about the project, produced in collaboration with the Citizen Science Alliance, see the Cancer Research video.