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Crowdsourcing the identification of cancer cells

In a effort to speed up the process of analyzing millions of pathology slides, British charity Cancer Research UK is enlisting the help of the general public through a new online interactive database of cancerous cell samples.

The nonprofit organization worked with Zooniverse, which hosts a variety of citizen science projects, to develop ClickToCure. Through the site's Cell Slider project, volunteers are asked to classify archive cancer samples. Wired UK reports:

At the moment, all the slides are breast cancer samples. A tutorial demonstrates what to look out for, for instance white blood cells are a bright pink through to their core. Ignore these -- what the public should be looking for are the irregularly shaped cells that have been stained yellow in part, or throughout their core. In the case of the breast cancer samples, the yellow colour represents the level of the oestrogen receptor (ER) protein present in the cell, a normal protein that in excess attracts too much oestrogen, which stimulates cancer cell division and tumour growth. Around 70 percent of breast cancers are classed as ER positive. Hormone therapies are helpful in treating this type of cancer -- drugs such as tamoxifen effectively slot into the oestrogen receptors to block oestrogen, preventing it reaching and feeding the cancer. This is usually only effective if there are high ER levels, and that's where Click to Cure comes in.

The public is first asked to identify what type of cells they are seeing -- irregular, white blood cells or normal tissue. Then, if they've spotted irregular cells, they're asked what percentage of those cells have turned yellow. The idea is to match up the results from this analysis of cell type, with how the anonymous patient in question responded to that treatment. It will help researchers see how effective different treatments are in treating specific cell types with specific levels of the ER protein.

Since launching the website yesterday, 21597 images have been analyzed. If the project is successful, Cancer Research UK plans to introduce databases of other cancers with distinct biological markers.

Previously: TED fellow uses crowdsource approach to treat his brain cancer, Can crowdfunding boost public support and financing for scientific research?, Video: Crowdsourcing your health and Crowdsourcing cost of drug development
Photo by Cancer Research UK

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