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Crowdsourcing, Citizen Science and Finding a Cure for Cancer

Scientist on October 30, 2012

It seems as if hardly a week goes by now without reading about a new example of crowdsouricing or citizen scientists working on some of the most challenging questions in modern biology and medicine. Just last week we reported on the evolution of outsourcing to crowdsourcing, citing the example of the Foldit program run by the University of Washington that challenged on line gamers to rearrange the amino acids in one of the key enzymes of industrial chemistry. The gamers not only improved the activity of the enzyme, but increased it 13 fold, and made structural changes that would never have been arrived at using traditional experimental methods.

This week, we report on Cancer Research UK, a British research organization that is turning to the power of crowdsourcing to help improve cancer treatment with its Citizen Science initiative. Cancer Research UK has recently opened up a vast online library of patient tissue sample photographs, and is asking the crowd (that’s you and me) to scan the pictures and flag the samples with signs of cancer.

Image courtesy of Cancer UK

Buried within our data is information that can transform cancer treatment. And we believe the solution to finding cancer cures lies within our research We’re hurtling into an era of personalised medicine – treating a patients not by their cancer type, but by their cancer’s genetic make-up.

Although we live in a technological age, our datasets still require analysis by real people and cannot be left to computers… The process is slow for a lone scientist, but with the collective power of hundreds of thousands of people, we can speed up this research by years. Together we will find cures for cancer sooner, rather than later.

Volunteers get an online tutorial to teach them what to look for, and then start reviewing the photographs. Thousands of pictures can be reviewed, flagged and postivies can be confirmed by researchers; this database quickly provides the researchers with a large data set to perform statistical analysis. In fact, the data from this crowdsourcing effort is being used in studies to analyze trends between patient treatments and cancer. By opening up to the public and citizen scientists, the UK researchers get far more horsepower applied to the problem.

The database helps elucidate questions such as ‘does treatment X result in less positive samples than treatment Y’. In fact once you have a data set of this size in hand the questions you can ask and answer are almost limitless. It also provides a great tool for better understanding the efficacy of treatment in different patient populations enabling physicians to fine tune the treatment regimes of future patients and improve survival rates. It’s a truly noble effort, and all made possible thanks to the power of crowdsourcing.

So please take a few minutes out of your day to check out their site; Cancer UK Citizen Science Program Do your bit for cancer research, lets come together to help find a cure for cancer!