Wanted: Cell detectives to help advance cancer research

08 July 2021

Win a chance to visit the cutting-edge lab, or make slime with famous faces like Sir Patrick Vallance, at Summer Science 2021

Members of the public are urged to grab their magnifying glass* – or computer mouse – and become cell detectives, to help cancer researchers taking part in Royal Society Summer Science 2021 through a new citizen science game.

Released as part of the free, online celebration of cutting-edge UK science, the AcCELLerate game produced by researchers at the Centre for Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine (CSCRM), King’s College London, will help train a computer algorithm to recognise oral cancers in medical images.

Cell detectives will be asked to analyse increasingly complex images

Cell detectives will first meet Ecty, a friendly ectoderm cell who can form tissues of the skin, eyes and mouth.  After a quick introduction to the task, participants will use their mouse or phone to trace the outline of healthy tongue cells or tumour tissues, which have been stained with fluorescent dye, in a series of increasingly complex images. 

Each repetition helps the algorithm to better differentiate between healthy and cancerous cells, and over time it is hoped the tool can be used to advance research into other cancers as well.

Participants who register and complete all the images, as well as a feedback survey, will be entered into a prize draw with the chance to win a visit to the research centre where they can speak to the team and see the science in action.

"I'm really excited that the public will be contributing to my work on oral cancer," said Dr Priyanka Bhosale, CSCRM Post-Doctoral Research Associate and part of the Summer Science group.

"The outcomes of the public training the AI will help me assess tumour tissue samples in a faster and more reliable way."

As well as their citizen science project, the group has also produced a number of other activities to help the public understand their research and answer the question "How can stem cells heal the human body?".

This includes a biomaterial slime-making activity, where you can join in with videos of famous faces including chief scientific advisor Sir Patrick Vallance, Radio 1 DJ Jeremiah Asiamah, and actor Philip Jackson answering questions about stem cells.

Or, learn about islet cells the body uses to produce insulin in an interactive transplantation game and how the different patterns of blood vessels under the skin can affect different diseases. 

"We’re thrilled to bring this citizen science project to the Royal Society Summer Science event to be able to involve a huge amount of people in our research," said Jessica Sells, CSCRM Public Engagement Officer and lead on the King’s College London project.

"The CSCRM is passionate about connecting with the public in innovative ways, and making sure that they are considered and included in the research that takes place."

Professor Fiona Watt, CSCRM Director and MRC Executive Chair, said: "Involving patients and the public in research is a key priority for us. It’s been really interesting to watch this project develop and I can’t wait to apply what we learn to future projects."

Launching today (Thursday 8 July 2021) this year’s digital Summer Science will bring interactive games, public workshops and lighting lectures from 19 of the UK’s most exciting research groups. 

This also includes a chance to take part in another Citizen Science project: the UK’s first ever public survey of how the country’s bee hotels are built, placed, and used, which was launched by  researchers from the Earlham Institute, Norwich – who’s exhibit is asking visitors "what’s a bee’s favourite flower?"

Professor Carlos Frenk CBE FRS, Chair of the Royal Society’s Public Engagement Committee, said: "Summer Science showcases some of the most exciting research in the UK and invites everyone to ask questions and investigate the world on their doorstep (and beyond)."

"For any scientist, good data is the best companion of a curious mind, and using people-power we can sometimes learn things that are off limits to the most powerful telescope or computer.

"Whether you’re checking in guests to your back garden bee hotel, spotting galaxies, or being a cell detective, there are important answers to be found that advance our knowledge and our understanding of the world around us."

*Magnifying glass not required