Inspired by a dear friend’s affinity for adult coloring books, we began to focus on adding a myriad of colors to liven up the ‘annotation’ — or tracing — of particular shapes (organelles) within cancer cell images captured by an electron microscope. We quickly adapted this concept to create nanoQuill, “The Coloring Book of Life.” Different from any other coloring book, your results are actually used to advance cancer research and shared on this website. This Coloring Book of Life includes 25 select cancer images giving everyone touched by cancer an opportunity to become unique artists fighting the disease using their very own palette. Art therapy is key to cancer centers worldwide and assists with emotional, physical healing and growth for its patients. nanoQuill goes a step further in using your ability to color cancer images to advance research.

The crowdsourcing idea behind the coloring book emerged in 2015, when OHSU scientists led by Joe Gray, Ph.D., developed a public outreach program to test the potential of enlisting students and citizen-scientists to help with processing electron microscope images produced by the OHSU Center for Spatial Systems Biomedicine. Cancer researchers at Oregon Health & Science University are working to understand how tumor cells develop resistance to escape cancer-targeting drugs. And they need your help. The nanoQuill “Coloring Book of Life” makes it possible for anyone to join the effort.

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Cell Biology

Cells are the “building blocks” of life and our bodies. We cannot normally see them because they are far smaller than our eyes can perceive: Ten thousand can fit on the head of a needle pin! A human body contains 37.2 trillion cells. They connect together to create different types of tissues, like your skin, and they can build complex organs like your brain, or your liver. You will need a light microscope to see those tissues. Doctors can look at them and see if the tissue is healthy or affected by a disease. In cancer, cells forget their normal functions and just start to replicate faster. They will look different: their shape and sizes will become more irregular, and their nuclei will be larger.

So what makes those cells act differently? For that, we need to look deeper inside those building blocks, with an instrument called the Electron Microscope.

This coloring book contains images that amazingly enlarge one cell at a time, and can even show the small organelles inside them. It takes thousands of images to verify important information, such as the difference between cancerous and healthy cells.


Electron Microscope

Our software can automatically find and measure cells in many types of light microscope images, and we do so for millions of images of cells and tissues. This answers many questions for biological researchers on how cells interact.

But, to learn more about why certain cells behave the way they do, we need to zoom in deeper, to the nanometer scale (a single hair is 80,000 nanometers thick!). At this scale, we can see details inside our cells, such as the organelles that regulate them, or the connections they make with neighboring cells. Those details are so small, that we cannot see them with normal light. Instead, we need a beam of electrons to create an image. These are the Electron Microscope images in this book. The first thing you will notice is the incredible amount of detail. The second: we can’t see this in color. The electrons only create a scattered black and white image of the cell.

In every experiment, OHSU researchers generate thousands of electron microscope images revealing detailed features inside cells. But even the best computer algorithms can’t trace the intricate shapes that are plainly visible to the human eye. The researchers must trace the objects by hand before they can use the images to build 3-D models of the structures and functions that drive cancer. Researchers need more sets of eyes to keep up with the work!

What happens with the images?

Cell images that are hand-colored and returned will help scientists at OHSU who are developing microscopy methods and quantitative data sets with support from the National Cancer Institute and the Prospect Creek Foundation.

Once you have uploaded the colored image and shared it on social media under the hashtag #color4cancer, we immediately retrieve it for processing in our analysis pipeline. This includes some basic image corrections: For example if the picture was taken at an angle, we use the markers at the corners to help warp it back to the original. We then analyze the colored regions from many nanoQuill artists on the same image, and combine them into consistent patterns. Now your work starts to pay off! We use those regions to guide edge detection algorithms to refine the position of the object edges, in other words: correcting for a little imprecision in our joint coloring and picture-taking process. The beauty of the method is that we combined the pattern recognition of your eye and brain, with a little bit of software to get sub-pixel precise edge locations.

Those results can be used to generate 3D models and quantitative measurements for the research done at OHSU – right now. With the measurements, biologist can better understand how tumor biology works, and what the precise differences are between normal cells and cancer cells at the nano scale. That knowledge will help them find new targets for drug therapies, design better treatment strategies, and hopefully save lives.

As a next step, Qi and the Computational Biologists at OHSU will use the same data to develop and train a future solution using deep learning algorithms. The training data from this initiative will also be open and accessible to anyone, such as other universities that want to develop new software of their own.

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