Crowdsourcing, the act of contracting out problems to large groups rather than tapping individual experts, has solved puzzles in fields such as marketing, engineering and computer software. But can the wisdom of crowds help cure disease?
A large, multidisciplinary panel has recently selected 12 pioneering ideas for attacking Type 1 Diabetes, ideas selected through a crowdsourcing experiment called the Challenge in which all members of the Harvard community, as well as members of the general public, were invited to answer the question: What do we not know to cure Type 1 Diabetes?
"We wanted to ask the entire Harvard community -- faculty, students, and administrators and staff of all levels and specialties -- to share their 'out of the box' questions and proposals for this challenge, regardless of whether they had the expertise or resources to answer the question," said Harvard Catalyst Director and HMS Dean for Clinical and Translational Research Lee Nadler. "We wanted the participants to apply their insights to a problem that may not have been in their academic or intellectual domain."
Among these winners are a patient, an undergraduate student, an MD/PhD student, a human resources representative, and researchers who are not experts in the field.
Out of 190 entries, 12 were chosen. Each of the winners, who will be formally announced in a ceremony held at Harvard Medical School on September 28, will receive a prize of $2,500. Working with the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, Harvard Catalyst plans to solicit research proposals from within the Harvard research community on some or all or the winning questions.
In a letter to the Harvard University community at the Challenge's launch in February, Harvard President Drew Faust expressed her hope that "such broad outreach, will help stimulate innovative thinking and potential new understandings and therapies," wishing that "in the spirit of this novel project, we will continue to multiply the means to connect the remarkable people and ideas across Harvard in imaginative and powerful ways."
Apart from the potentially revolutionary submissions from the community, the Challenge, in which Harvard collaborated with InnoCentive, provides evidence that finding new and innovative ideas for tackling disease is itself an act of innovation. "The Challenge was an exercise in tapping the knowledge of the widest possible community and encouraging the formation of new teams and new forms of collaboration around a specific topic area," says Dana-Farber Cancer Institute's Eva Guinan, MD, director of the Harvard Catalyst Linkages program and one of the Challenge's co-leaders.
According to research by Challenge co-leader Karim Lakhani, PhD, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, innovation contests like this one can help reveal and foster unexpected and novel solutions to vexing scientific problems. "Open innovation is an effective way to solve scientific problems in the business world."
The Challenge was part of an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA)-funded effort by Harvard Catalyst and InnoCentive to investigate whether new approaches employed in the private sector for sparking new research directions and collaborations might be useful in the academic healthcare community.
The winners and their ideas
The winners and their ideas
"I first heard about the Challenge through the campus-wide email sent by President Faust," said Blewett. "I was drawn to the fact that the challenge promised to create a dialogue spanning scientific disciplines and based on the merit of people's ideas. Opportunities like this are extremely rare."
"Type 1 Diabetes is a complicated disease that requires one to be thinking constantly about what he/she eats, what his/her exercise level has been or needs to be, what his/her blood sugar level is at, and knowing if it rising or falling," said Dolan. "Despite all that, it is not a disease that prevents someone from being successful in whatever endeavor they choose to pursue. I felt providing the perspective to Challenge of someone who deals with Type 1 Diabetes on a daily basis would help researchers as they pursue improved diabetes care management and eventually a cure."
"I had two recent 'jolts' that motivated me to take part in the contest," said Feinberg, a cardiologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital. "First, I recently had a patient with long-standing Type 1 Diabetes who, despite his and his doctors' best efforts, was suffering the end-stage effects of his disease. The second was the news that a very young family member of mine had just been diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. This prompted me to think about my own research endeavors and whether some of the things I've been studying could be applicable to this disease."
"In thinking about the Challenge, I wanted to connect immunity and autoimmunity through the lens of genetics," Friedman explained. "There are ideas that would generally be considered too speculative for funding through typical channels."
"The Challenge gave me an opportunity to think globally about approaches to diabetes, as opposed the niche my research has focused on," Gaglia commented. "It has helped me explore aspects of my field and related fields that are removed from my current research."
"I am preparing to start my own laboratory, and looked at the Challenge as an opportunity to identify novel research directions," said Huangfu. "But I realized that my own research had become more focused on the cells destroyed by diabetes than on the disease itself. Thinking through my submission has, in the end, made me more conscious of Type 1 Diabetes as a disease."
"I have seen the trials and tribulations of many Type 1 Diabetes patients as they moved from childhood into adolescence and adult life," said Mendivil-Anaya. "This has made the human face of diabetes is very familiar and very close to my heart."
"I have taken part in InnoCentive challenges in the past," said Moore, "and when I saw the Ideation Challenge posting, I realized that some of the family-based population study designs that I have worked with in other fields could be applicable to important questions in Type I diabetes."
"My motivation to respond to the challenge came from my knowledge of what an important advance it would be in the care of individuals of all ages with both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, if a reliable methodology to monitor blood glucose non-invasively could be developed," Mulvihill said. "My knowledge comes from having a child who 20 years ago was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, as well as meeting thousands of individuals with Type 1 diabetes and their families."
"I'd not considered doing any work on diabetes before, but happened to be on my Surgery Rotation at the time the challenge was announced, and at the time I had contact with many patients who had undergone gastric bypass procedures," said Viswanathn. "I was intrigued by the observation that many of these patients were no longer diabetic after having the surgery, and read about this phenomenon wherein gastric bypass surgery could alter the pancreas's insulin-producing capacity."
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