Good Medicine: Crowdsourcing Contests Save Lives

Thanks to a $1 million dollar contest, sufferers of the debilitating neuromuscular disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, may be one step closer to finding a cure. Last week, the ALS non-profit Prize4Life named neurologist Dr. Seward Rutkove winner of their Biomarker Contest, through which they crowdsourced the entire medical and scientific community. The contest was a passionate plea for help in finding a treatment for the deadly disease which had long been ignored by the pharmaceutical industry.

According to a recent New York Times article, Dr. Rutkove, who has been working with neuromuscular patients for 16 years, invented an electromagnetic device “which quantifies the small muscular changes that signal progressive deterioration.” Though this discovery may not sound like much to healthy common folk, Prize4Life believes that it could cut the cost of clinical trials in half, thereby dramatically increasing the likelihood of future trials. This restores a glimmer of hope for ALS treatments that are effective and affordable. Currently, available treatment options only extend the life of patients by a few months and cost around $10,000 annually.

Prize4Life’s $1 million incentive, the largest ever reported for a specific medical contest, brought together previously inaccessible resources. The non-profit is offering another $1 million for a treatment or cure that extends the life of ALS mice by 25% in lab experiments, an ambitious number considering that no experiment to-date has come close to those results. The Prize4Life contests are part of a growing crowdsourcing trend in the medical and scientific community. In December, Life Technologies, a biotech company included in Scientist magazine’s top 10 innovations in 2010, announced 7 contests, each with a $1 million dollar prize to “accelerate innovation within the life science community.”

Crowdsourcing contests seem to be like a shot of espresso for research communities, energizing and propelling them toward discoveries. These contests have the power to direct which areas of science and medicine continue to be explored and which are abandoned. What diseases are still being neglected by the medical research industry? How can crowdsourcing contests improve or save the lives of those suffering from chronic diseases?

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