Can Crowdsourcing Speed Diabetes Drug Discovery?

When it comes to finding treatments and cures for complicated conditions such as diabetes, why not cast the widest net possible for new ideas? That’s the thinking behind the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation’s new collaboration with an organization called Innocentive to seek innovative proposals from the general public for a novel glucose-responsive insulin drug. The “Challenge,” which offers a $100,000 reward, is an example of crowdsourcing in drug discovery, a recent concept that has been gaining momentum.

manbeastextraordinaire (Jake Brown) / Wikimedia Commons

“Originally, crowdsourcing was defined as a mechanism by which specific problems are communicated to an unknown group of potential solvers in the form of an open call, usually via the Internet; the community (the “crowd”) is asked to provide solutions and the ‘winners’ are rewarded,” Dr. Monika Lessl and Dr. Khusssru Asadullah, of Global Drug Discovery Bayer Healthcare Pharmaceuticals, Berlin, wrote earlier this year in Nature Reviews/Drug Discovery.

Eli Lilly was the first company to introduce the crowdsourcing concept in drug discovery by establishing the InnoCentive platform in 2001. Now an independent organization, InnoCentive has a “solver” community of more than 200,000 experts from 20 countries. In Innocentive’s “Challenge Platform” model, intellectual property (IP) is transferred from the solver to the “seeker” in return for a financial reward. In contrast, with Bayer Healthcare’s Grants4Targets, IP remains fully with the applicants initially, and subsequent collaborative agreements are negotiated for promising agents. In yet another crowdsourcing model sponsored by the UK’s Medical Research Council, IP is jointly owned and revenue is split between the parties.

Drs. Lessl and Asadullah write that in order for drug discovery crowdsourcing to be successful, “it is critical that the questions or challenges to be addressed are suitable, precisely defined and clearly presented, and that what is expected from potential solvers and offered by the searching organizations is clearly communicated.” Indeed, the expectation is clearly spelled out for the JDRF/InnoCentive initiative: “What we need is a sophisticated insulin that will take the guesswork out of managing diabetes by working the same way insulin works in people without diabetes,” Aaron Kowalski, Ph.D., assistant vice president of Treatment Therapies at JDRF, said in a press statement.

This isn’t JDRF’s first support of research on glucose-responsive insulin. Back in 2008, JDRF formed a $1 million partnership with a company called SmartCells, Inc. to advance the preclinical development of a product called SmartInsulin. SmartCells has since been acquired by Merck, which is continuing the product’s development. As Dr. Kowalski told me, “JDRF remains interested and excited in the clinical development of SmartInsulin by Merck.”

Photo by Miriam E. Tucker

So why is JDRF now simultaneously crowdsourcing the concept? Again, it’s about that wide net. First, Dr. Kowalski said, there may be multiple innovative ways to design glucose-responsive insulins. Second, it’s possible that not all insulin-dependent diabetes patients would respond the same way to a single type of insulin. “Therefore, we aim to stimulate more approaches that we hope will provide multiple options to patients with diabetes.”

Third, because the approval process for new drugs is highly variable, “The more options that are available, the more likely it is that one of them will make its way through the regulatory process.” Bottom line: “Insulin-dependent diabetes remains an urgent, unmet medical need, and it is important for JDRF to take a multi-pronged approach to tackle this challenge.” By opening up the challenge to the entire world, crowdsourcing would seem to be the ultimate “multi-pronged” approach.

Anyone with a solution that fits the proposed criteria is eligible to enter the Challenge, which requires only a written proposal. Submissions will be accepted through November 9, 2011.

—Miriam E. Tucker (@MiriamETucker on Twitter)


Filed under Drug And Device Safety, Endocrinology, Diabetes, and Metabolism, IMNG, Internal Medicine

2 responses to “Can Crowdsourcing Speed Diabetes Drug Discovery?

  1. Todd Zion of MIT already invented glucose reactive, or SmartInsulin. Merck paid him 500 million dollars for it in December 2010 and is now sitting on it. Where is SmartInsulin? Merck has no intention of developing it because it will cut into the profits of their main cash cow, the Type 2 diabetic pill Januvia they produce. Meanwhile Type 1 children die. Type 1 is rare. Type 2 is growing exponentially and thus there is no financial motivation for the development of SmartInsulin.

  2. If SmartInsulin were to work, it would work for people with type 2 diabetes too.

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