Leading global pharmaceutical company UCB, recently announced the launch of an exciting new Innovation Challenge. The Challenge calls for submissions describing individuals or groups who possess rare phenotypes (extraordinary traits, characteristics or natural abilities). We recently spoke with Duncan McHale, Vice President, Global Exploratory Development at UCB, to find out a bit more about the Challenge and the interesting subject area it focuses around.
Hello Duncan, – thank you for joining us today. Could you start by giving us a bit of background information on this project and explain what you mean by the term: ‘rare phenotype’?
Absolutely. Each and every one of us is genetically unique. Our bodies are made up of billions of cells and each cell contains genetic instructions within our DNA which act as a blueprint for everything about us - our appearance, the way our bodies grow and develop as well as the way we deal with illness. Whilst all humans share a common DNA our individual differences are a result of a totally unique combination of genotypes, inherited instructions carried within our genetic code. Our DNA is 99.9% identical but that last 0.1% makes us unique and hence we cannot all play football like David Beckham.
These variations in DNA result in the differences in how we look and function. These differences are known as phenotypes – in basic terms, the observable physical or biochemical characteristics which are determined by both genetic makeup and environmental influences. These phenotypes contribute towards what makes us all different and unique.
The UCB Innovation Challenge seeks to identify individuals, families, groups or communities who possess rare phenotypes – for example people who possess great self-healing abilities, incredible memory or who are protected from disease.
What sort of ideas or information are you hoping to gain from running the Innovation Challenge? What sort of submissions are you looking for?
We have a completely open mind about what phenotypes might be most appropriate to explore. For example, someone who exhibited exceptional wound healing after surgery or trauma might really help our understanding of wound healing. Equally, a person or group of people who have consistently displayed exceptional resistance or immunity to infections, or someone who, after a robust clinical diagnosis, displayed unusually fast or spontaneous disease remission might lead to a new therapy for that disease. These submissions could all be winners of the competition.
The challenge is also open to researchers who have ideas around how best to identify rare phenotypes in remote or isolated communities or who, through a phenotype based approach, identify a rare condition that could provide insights valuable in treating or preventing a more common condition.
What is UCB planning to do with the ideas submitted? How will these insights be translated into real-world healthcare innovations?
Our scientists can begin the search for new medicines by identifying people who possess rare phenotypes and then follow the ‘gene-to-medicine’ approach using their findings to develop medicines or technologies that treat or prevent severe disease.
There are many examples where this ‘gene-to-medicine’ approach has been successful. For example, certain individuals, belonging to an Afrikaner community in South Africa, possessed exceptionally strong and dense bones. These people suffered from a rare disease called sclerosteosis and further research was able to identify the specific gene mutation responsible for their condition. It was found that changes in this gene stopped a protein, which plays an important role in bone formation, from working. These findings were then used to develop a novel candidate medicine for the treatment for osteoporosis, a disease where weak bones lead to an increased risk of fractures.
The challenge has been to locate and identify individuals likely to have unique and rare phenotypes – that is where the UCB Innovation Challenge comes in!
What prompted you to take a crowdsourcing approach to innovating in this area, rather than deploying more traditional innovation strategies?
This is an innovative approach to developing new medicines which, potentially, holds much promise to help patients. Traditionally, however, identifying individuals and communities that possess medically interesting protective or positive phenotypes has proved difficult.
With the Innovation Challenge, UCB hopes to harness the power of the internet to create a global super-network allowing them to identify people who have unique phenotypes. This could provide a useful head start in identifying new areas of medical research.
Thanks for your time Duncan. Do you have any specific advice or guidance for people looking to enter the Challenge?
Entrants should remember that by getting involved in the UCB Innovation Challenge they could play an important role in helping to develop new medical treatments, which could have the potential to make a real difference to future patients.
Entrants should also “think outside the box” when it comes to considering rare phenotypes. The great thing about crowd-sourcing and harnessing the power of super-networks is the way it allows people to approach challenges from unique and unconventional approaches.
And, from a practical perspective, in order to be eligible for an award, submissions must describe phenotypes that can be studied to provide information useful in the development of new medicines and disease prevention strategies.
We’re really excited by the UCB Innovation Challenge, and we hope potential Solvers are too!