Cancer Research UK in 2012 developed a browser-based game called Cell Slider, which uses crowd-sourcing to identify slides of cells that my or may not contain cancer cells.
The project aims to run through hundreds of thousands of slides collected since the 1970s that were filed away in storage because no-one had the computing power to analyse the slides. Cell Slider is presented as a game and Cancer Research UK says that the project has run through more than 1.6 million slides in 3 months – something that their fastest computer could only do in eighteen months.
Cell Slider presents players with picture samples of slides containing blood cells, cancer cells, irregular cells, or mutated cells. Players run through a small number of slides and are asked to click on which one they think matches best. This is a task that would take a computer a longer time to do, as humans can more easily match up pictures and differences and memorising key points about an image that help them go through the slides faster.
Now the team of researchers have approached indie developer Guerilla Tea with the idea of making a mobile game that can be played through browsers and on phones and tablets. Guerilla Tea have previously worked with Cancer Research UK on a hackathon event in collaboration with Facebook, Google, and Amazon Web Services. Amy Carton said Guerilla Tea “consulted with [cancer researchers] to make sure the mechanics would lead to the most robust science possible”.
Not real science?
Although crowd-sourcing this kind of thing may be frowned upon by other research teams that believe science should be left to the scientists, think for a minute about the time and energy they’re saving here. They don’t have to do complex programming and spend months of debugging to make a computer go through these slides because humans can figure out what to do through the on-screen instructions.
They don’t have to build a massive server to host all their data and they don’t have to use up a huge amount of electricity to do it. Crowd-sourcing has become a popular alternative after the success of projects such as [email protected], which uses the resources of idle Playstation 3 consoles to map DNA molecules of diseases.
A cure could be based on research results
In Visions of the Future: The Biotech Revolition, Dr Michio Kaku explains that certain types of cancer can be cured through the use of biogenetics, altering cells through gene therapy to be resistant to the types of cancer a patient may be suffering from. However, that requires researchers go through mountains of data to find and categorise all 50 common cancer variants thought to currently exist.
“What we need to do, really, is compile an encyclopaedia of all known cancers and look at hundreds, if not thousands of people who have that strain of cancer and identify how that cancer is addling with that person’s genes. It sounds almost impossible, but we can do it in three to five years”, says Kaku.
And that’s more or less what Cell Slider aims to do, to help collate information about cancer and various types of cancer in the hope of first finding out what strains exist and how they function, and then basing a cure on that information that can be administered through gene therapy.
If you have some free time, play a bit of Cell Slider and do your part in helping to rid us of cancer. In the US alone, 2,500 people die of cancer and cancer-related diseases every day, which means that roughly every 25 seconds one person dies from the disease. By accelerating the time taken to find a cure, many people may be spared.