Seeker Spotlight: Prize4Life

Posted by Connie French on Apr 30, 2009 9:02:12 AM

Earlier this week we announced that Prize4Life had awarded 2 InnoCentive Solvers for their efforts toward finding a biomarker for ALS.  Prize4Life also announced that they would be reposting the Challenge in May, in honor of the organization's third anniversary.  I asked Melanie Leitner, Ph.D., Chief Scientific Officer from Prize4Life to talk to us about this Challenge, the submissions they received and their hopes for relaunching the Challenge.

Thanks for talking with us today, Melanie.  Can you tell us why you decided to post this Challenge on InnoCentive's Marketplace?  How optimistic were you that you would find a solution?

When we first developed the Biomarker Prize in 2006, we wanted a way to draw in a broad, diverse, and international pool of competing teams.  As a brand new, very small organization just establishing itself, we did not have the capacity to conduct the kind of marketing and outreach campaign necessary to reach the audience we were looking to attract. We were looking for a partner with established expertise and existing international networks in the open innovation domain. InnoCentive was an attractive partner for us, particularly given their large pool of international solvers.  We also saw that InnoCentive shared many of Prize4Life goals and values, including wanting to change the world (but being agnostic as to where these new world-changing solutions might come from) and especially being international in focus. We knew that posting a $1 million prize, the largest prize ever posted on InnoCentive, would benefit the great work that both organizations were doing.

When our Scientific Advisory Board first set a 2-year deadline for this prize, we knew it was very ambitious.  After all, it often takes 2 years just to get an NIH grant, and in the same period of time, we were asking researchers to come up with a novel idea, find funding, conduct a patient-based study (with all the regulatory hurdles that entails), and provide us with validated results.  Still, we needed to balance these realities with the realities of ALS: most patients die within 2-5 years of diagnosis, and there is currently only one FDA-approved ALS drug on the market, so the need for an ALS biomarker of disease progression was urgent. We knew we were setting a very high bar, but we also knew that if we handled this prize well, we could accelerate research on a very targeted issue.  Our Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) believed that even though we were setting a very high bar, there was a reasonable likelihood that it could be met in 2 years and given the urgency of the need it was worth taking the risk.

Your Challenge was to find a biomarker for ALS - why did you decide to pay an award if the Challenge hasn't been solved?

The two Solvers to whom we're awarding prizes got impressively close to meeting all of the Prize Challenge criteria.  Essentially, both Solvers have identified preliminary ALS biomarkers and have demonstrated very promising results, but they need more data to fully validate their findings.  The ALS research community desperately needs a reliable way to measure disease progression, and we thought that the findings of these two Solver teams were so significant that we had to broadcast them to the larger ALS community as well as honor the accomplishments of the research teams in this vital area of biomarker discovery.  For that reason, even though neither Solver team met 100% of our very rigorous prize criteria, the SAB wanted to honor them with prizes and alert the rest of the ALS community to their impressive work.

What were the most significant results of posting this Challenge?

Overall, we had over 1000 teams review the prize criteria, at least 50 teams compete from 18 different countries, and we received 12 submissions from 7 different countries by our deadline.  Our Solvers ranged from ALS experts to those who were completely new to the field, and we were pleased to see such diversity and so many out-of-the-box approaches amongst the submissions.  We have often said that one of the best things the incentive prize model can do is attract a wide variety of people to think about a particular problem in new and different ways, and the submissions we received demonstrate that, as a complement to front-end funding and support, the prize model can truly help accelerate the discovery of answers to very focused problems.

I think the winners of our two prizes exemplify our success in attracting a group of Solvers with a wide range of knowledge and expertise: Dr. Seward Rutkove has been conducting research related to ALS for over 10 years so for him, the main impact of the prize was to accelerate his efforts, narrow his focus a bit on the particular issue of finding an ALS biomarker of clinical progression, and encourage him to perform certain statistical analyses relevant to validating his approach.  Dr. Harvey Arbesman is a dermatologist with no previous background in ALS research, who was inspired by the prize to translate a long-known clinical observation, that ALS patients do not develop bed sores, into the discovery of a brand new skin-based biomarker. So in one case the prize accelerated the efforts of an "existing" ALS mind, and in another case we attracted a "new" mind to the ALS field.

You are planning to re-post the Challenge in a few weeks - do you expect to find a solution this time?

The Challenge will have a rolling deadline and will be open for 2 years, meaning that our Scientific Advisory Board will review submissions as soon as they come in and we will award the $1M prize as soon as we receive a submission that meets all of our posted Prize criteria.  Given how much progress was made in the past two years (both in the context of the prize as well as in the ALS research field at large), we believe that a fully validated biomarker will be found within the next two years.

Is it possible that a new Solver could come forward to win the $1M prize?  Or are the winners of the current prize too far advanced?

Dr. Arbesman and Dr. Rutkove's teams have clearly made a lot of progress, but we know there are other researchers out there working on this very issue, and we know there is a possibility that one of these other teams will find and validate an ALS biomarker of disease progression first.  This is why we are re-posting the prize on InnoCentive -- we still believe that the necessary solution can come from anywhere and we want to keep the door open for anyone and everyone who believes they can produce an ALS biomarker within the next two years.

Do you have any words of wisdom for Solvers who might be interested in working on the re-posted Challenge?

We've learned a lot from this Challenge, and we want to share some of the lessons we've learned with those who are interested in competing.  While the prize criteria remain the same, we're making some changes in the language that help clarify some of our criteria - and solvers can find that clarified language in the InnoCentive project room.  We'll also be sharing a list of other lessons learned within the InnoCentive project room when the prize is re-posted May 15th.

Thank you Melanie - we're honored to be part of this project.

Thank you.

Topics: Seekers

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