Archive for the ‘Health’ Category
Winter is here! Check out more winter weather themed citizen science projects at Scistarter.
Here in the northern hemisphere, by this time of year, the signs of winter are nearly fully developed. Pea coats to defend us from the cold, denuded forests, grasses in gowns of morning white, and, of course, symptoms of the flu (otherwise known as influenza) around our daily interactions. Be it a cough, a runny nose, or untimely sweats, being surrounded by these unpleasant yet familiar symptoms make it seem like the dreaded flu is around every corner.
As it happens, where the flu is and who has it makes a big difference in how we understand the spread of influenza and who might be vulnerable or at risk. FluSurvey UK is one of a few citizen science projects in the world that tracks the movement and abundance of influenza-like illnesses, which is any kind of sickness that looks like the flu but can’t be confirmed without lab work asserting the presence of the virus. FluSurvey participants, however, also add background information from occupation, commute patterns, and socioeconomic status to dietary habits, average contact with old and young people, and whether or not they’ve been vaccinated, painting a vivid picture of the population.
This helps Dr. Alma Adler, who heads FluSurvey and a fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine “uniquely… get information on risk factors for influenza-like illnesses.” The data provided by FluSurvey participants showed, for instance, that train ride actually does not increase your risk of contracting flu-like illnesses since participants who used public transportation actually reported less flu symptoms than those who used private transportation. This was a bit of a surprising find, since influenza tends to be communicated through droplets expelled into the air by infected people, and then sucked in somehow by healthy people. On the other hand, we all also know that children, cute as they can be, are excellent disease vectors as well. FluSurvey showed that people who come into regular contact with children were at a higher risk for influenza-like illnesses and that flu cases rise more rapidly when schools are open than when they are closed. This is good news, considering the kids will soon be on winter break, and people can venture into a cleaner world.
In the past, this kind of analysis would have been impossible. Flu surveillance once had to rely on reports from general medical practitioners and hospitals, which left epidemiologists fumbling for an accurate cross-section of the population. The trouble being that only a subsection of sick people will go to the doctor. Unlike FluSurvey, Dr. Adler says, “Doctors’ reports are not linked to any kind of background information.” And while the data from FluSurvey is only a proxy for the actual presence of influenza, it seems to be robust. Dr. Adler says they “compare [FluSurvey’s] influenza-like-illness peaks to when we know there are peaks in laboratory confirmed flu cases. Generally, our data match up fairly well,” showing that people are reporting flu in the survey when there is honest-to-god flu flying around.
While FluSurvey UK is only available to our British friends, it’s a part of the European Influenzanet which has surveys in ten different countries. For those of us in the U.S.A., we have to rely on a similar health map called Flu Near You, which asks people to report flu-like symptoms and monitors influenza but doesn’t collect any other data. This might change in the future, as crowd-sourcing data collection and citizen science is becoming more and more popular in epidemiology. Citizen science could, in theory, provide a study population limited only by the number of people with a computer and access to internet for the same or even a smaller cost.
Data from FluSurvey has recently informed a new UK immunization scheme that targets vaccinations at children (since they’re a major risk factor). It has also partnered with the British Science Association to get more children involved with the project. The CDC has similar flu monitoring systems available.
If you’re in the UK or elsewhere in Europe, you can join FluSurvey UK or find your country’s FluSurvey at Influenzanet. If you’re in the States, Flu Near You is always happy to hear about your illness too. And if you haven’t yet, remember to get a flu vaccination if you can since, as Dr. Adler says, “That is the only real risk factor you can do something about.”
Image: DOD, FluNearYou.org
Angus R. Chen is a research assistant at Princeton University, where he does geochronology research using uranium and lead isotopes from zircon crystals. Previously, he was a research intern at the Harvard Forest, studying the impacts of climate change on soil. He recently graduated from Oberlin College with a double major in environmental science and creative writing. When he’s not in the lab admiring rocks and then pulverizing them, he writes poetry, fiction, science articles, and makes cool videos.
It’s likely you never expected to aid cutting edge cancer research by playing computer games, but the makers of NanoDoc are asking citizen scientists to do just that. By designing nanoparticles – tiny clusters that are made up of only tens to thousands of atoms – and running simulations of how they interact in the body, players can help expert bioengineers overcome challenges in cancer treatment.
Nanoparticles are promising options for cancer treatment because they can be altered in many ways to target cancer tumors without harming healthy tissue. For example, nanoparticles can be designed to interact only with cancer cells or engineered to deliver medicine to affected areas of the body. The problem bioengineers face is that there are too many combinations of nanoparticle alterations to physically test how each one will behave in the body. To address this, Prof. Bhatia’s lab at MIT developed NanoDoc as a way to crowdsource simulated solutions.
The lead developer of NanoDoc, Dr. Sabine Hauert, states that the program “lets the crowd do the legwork” of testing the different nanoparticle solutions through a fun and educational simulation game. Participants start by playing through various training scenarios, working on challenges that have been previously solved by experts. At each level, the players learn a new skill, which allows them to alter the simulated nanoparticles in new ways. Hauert describes, “Its really a cool stepwise process. You get little diplomas at every step.”
Following the training, players are ready to address NanoDoc challenges, which are unsolved problems proposed by bioengineers. Hauert notes that the advantage of the going through the training first is that it prepares players to “go ahead and start working on the problem right away without an engineer,” enabling individual participants to make real contributions. The participants’ solutions are evaluated based on their scores in the game, and the highest scores are carefully evaluated for their potential to test with physical systems. More of these challenges will be available in the coming weeks with the release of the new version of NanoDoc, which will allow for any user to submit new challenges.
So start your NanoDoc training today and join in the challenge! Your high score could lead to tomorrow’s cure.
Emily Lewis is a PhD candidate in chemistry at Tufts University, where she analyzes industrially important catalysts on the nanoscale. She received her BS and MS degrees from Northeastern University, and her thesis work examined fuel cell catalysts under real operating conditions. She loves learning about energy and the environment, exploring science communication, and investigating the intersection of these topics with the policy world. When she’s not writing or in the lab, you’ll probably spot Emily at the summit of one of the White Mountains in NH. Follow her: @lewisbase, emilyannelewis.com.
Tasmania, the island state of Australia, is known for its tall trees, its wild mountains, its challenging caves, but most of all for its Tasmanian Devils. While the Warner Brothers cartoon character may be responsible for this infamy, the devils themselves are fascinating creatures. They are also endangered by a mysterious disease and are the subject of a unique citizen science project.
The Save The Tasmanian Devil Program’s Roadkill Project is seeking any bits of information they can on the spread of a transmissible cancer that is decimating this project. And, as any Tasmanian road traveller knows, grimly, the road network is where wildlife meets citizen.
Tasmanian devils are the largest remaining marsupial carnivores on Earth. Known to the Tasmanian aboriginals as “purinina” and to zoologists as Sarcophilus harrisii, they are pouched marsupials like kangaroos and koalas. Unlike them, it is a carnivore, or rather, a scavenger. In 1936, the last thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, died in captivity; it had been the previous largest remaining carnivorous marsupial. Over the last hundred thousand years, coinciding with the arrival of humans to Australia, many other animals have gone extinct, including browsing marsupials the size of a bison (Diprotodon) and meat eaters the size of tigers (Thylacoleo). The devils, and these other, extinct, animals used to live all over Australia- but Tasmania is the last habitat for the devil.
Since 1996, a curious disease has been ravaging them in a horrific way. A contagious cancer has been killing devils, apparently transmitted during the fights that they engage in regularly. It grows into hideous tumours, eventually killing the animals. There is no known cure.
It’s hard to explain the emotional impact of this disease on Tasmanians. There is a great sadness at the loss of the Tasmanian Tiger, which was hunted to death in modern times, and to have the devil go extinct, perhaps in our lifetimes, is a cruel blow. So, admirably, the Australian and Tasmanian governments have committed substantial resources to medical and wildlife research.
Like many others, I saw my first devil as roadkill. Tasmania’s roads are winding and surrounded by forest. Marsupials aren’t too alert and are often hit by cars. It’s a grim reality, but also evidence that there is a large amount of wildlife alive in Tasmania. Most hits are with wallabies (small kangaroos) or possums, but every so often, a devil gets hit.
The scientists at the Save The Devil Program have put out a call to citizen scientists to help track the progress of the disease, and the state of the devil population by reporting road kill sightings of Tassie Devils. There are thousands of printed forms asking for information on the exact location, and a dedicated telephone number for text messages and photo inputs. These forms are easy to keep in the car, and help travellers and residents to play a part in putting devil sightings on the map. There are hundreds of roadkill devils reported each year, and while their loss is tragic, at least citizen scientists are monitoring the incidence of the disease.
Next time, we’ll hear from the organisers at the Tassie Devil program and hear about their progress and data. Drive carefully, wherever you are!
Photos: Save the Tasmanian Devil
YD Bar-Ness is a conservation ecologist based in the far corner of Australia, on the island of Tasmania. As a conservationist, he seeks to use geography and photography to create environmental education materials, and as a scientist, he specialises in climbing trees to explore the canopy biodiversity. He has previously been based in Delhi, Seattle, Perth, San Francisco, and Bangalore. He reckons the wilderness of Tasmania is the perfect venue for a Citizen Science Field Institute, and publishes Tasmanian Geographic, a free online documentary magazine at http://www.
This project is part of our Back to School 2013 round-up of projects. Read more about them!
Breast cancer is the single most common cancer in women worldwide with roughly 1 in 8 women developing the disease each year. Chances are, a friend or family member is coping with this diagnosis right now. Following Angelina Jolie’s announcement earlier this year about her family’s struggle with breast cancer and her treatment choices, advances in biomedical research and personalized medicine increasingly hold the promise of a day when cancer is cured. How do scientists find the clues buried within tumor samples?
Cell Slider, a collaboration between Cancer Research UK and Zooniverse, is the first citizen scientist project whose goal is to speed up cancer research by enlisting citizen scientists to analyze real tumor samples. According to Professor Andrew Handby, a CRUK scientist from the University of Leeds who helped develop Cell Slider, “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, lead to important serendipitous discoveries… Cell Slider makes our data accessible – it’s not just for scientists and computer geeks – everyone can play their part in curing cancer.”
Ideal for secondary school science classes, Cell Slider is a real-life citizen scientist project that uses the same methods researchers use everyday in the laboratory to identify cancer cells. Students are introduced to some of the common core principles in life sciences, including basic cell types and shapes, while developing analytical and critical thinking skills. You don’t have to be a scientist to participate in this project; simple mouse clicks help researchers around the world find new cancer treatments buried in simple tumor samples.
During a brief tutorial, students are introduced to the three cell types typically seen on the microscope slides (white blood cells, tissue cells, and cancer cells), taught to identify normal and cancer cells based on shape and staining, then asked to analyze real images of breast cancer tumors. A special yellow dye that sticks to oestrogen receptor (ER) helps identify cells with excessive ER and candidates for cancer treatments using hormonal therapies such as tamoxifen. Once the irregularly shaped, yellow-stained, cancer cells are identified you estimate their number and how strongly they are stained through a matching game. Using this data, researchers are beginning to understand the connections between molecules found on cancer cells and the effects of common treatments on the outcome of the disease.
“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,” said Professor Paul Pharoah, a CRUK scientist from Cambridge University who helped develop Cell Slider. “This will enable us to match up women with the right cancer drugs based on their tumor type. We hope that this personalized medicine approach would be a reality in years to come, but this computer program could make it a reality sooner than any of us had imagined possible.”
Since its launch in October 2012, more than 860,000 citizen scientists from around the world have analyzed over 1.7 million images. Could we be just your mouse click away from a cure?
Photo : Cell Slider
Dr Melinda T. Hough is a freelance science advocate and writer. Her previous work has included a Mirzayan Science and Technology Graduate Policy Fellowship at the National Academy of Sciences (2012), co-development of several of the final science policy questions with ScienceDebate.org (2012), consulting on the development of the Seattle Science Festival EXPO day (2012), contributing photographer for JF Derry’s book “Darwin in Scotland” (2010) and outreach projects to numerous to count. Not content to stay stateside, Melinda received a B.S in Microbiology from the University of Washington (2001) before moving to Edinburgh, Scotland where she received a MSc (2002) and PhD (2008) from the University of Edinburgh trying to understand how antibiotics kill bacteria. Naturally curious, it is hard to tear Melinda away from science; but if you can, she might be found exploring, often behind the lens of her Nikon D80, training for two half-marathons, or plotting her next epic adventure.
As cold and flu season approaches in the Northern Hemisphere, many people are starting to think about what they can do to avoid getting sick. To help prevent illnesses, public health advice needs to be based on solid scientific evidence.
The Health Tracking Network is a citizen science project designed to fill some of these gaps in knowledge. You can join others from across the world in helping find factors linked to common illnesses such as the common cold, influenza, and stomach flu (gastroenteritis).
Anyone 18 years old or older can participate. When you join the Health Tracking Network, you:
- spend 2-3 minutes per week answering questions about illness symptoms and related topics,
- earn money for charities of your choice, and
- can track your own health, fitness, or anything of interest to you with separate tracking tools.
Participation is completely anonymous.
The project began in April, 2011, and more than 415 people have joined so far. Through their participation, members of the Health Tracking Network have generated more than $2,000 in donations to charities.
The Health Tracking Network needs more participants from all over the world! More participants will allow the project to identify factors related to common illnesses with confidence, which may ultimately lead to good scientific advice about prevention. Join the effort now!
Guest post by Dr. Devon Brewer