‘The Challenge’ Seeks Diabetes Cure

Members of the Harvard Medical School community gathered yesterday to honor the winners of a multidisciplinary competition that challenged participants to solve one of the most pressing questions in the medical field.

“The Challenge,” which had been two years in the making by two Harvard faculty members, asked participants in February to answer the question, “What do we not know to cure type 1 Diabetes?” Harvard students, experts in the field, and even individuals with little to no medical experience submitted answers.

The 12 contest winners included one Harvard undergraduate, six affiliates of the Medical School, a doctoral student at the School of Public Health, and a student from the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology Program.

The winning responses ranged in focus from type 1 diabetes patient maintenance and care to different approaches to insulin therapy.

Successful contestants, who hailed from diverse professional backgrounds, said that they appreciated the opportunity to have input on a problem outside of their usual areas of focus.

“The fantastic thing about this challenge is that it lowers the barriers to entry so all you really need is an idea and internet access,” said Megan M. Blewett ’11, a winner of the contest. “I think that is quintessentially American.”

The competition based its structure upon crowdsourcing, the concept of opening discussion to a large group rather than restricting it to individual experts.

Robynn Sturm, assistant deputy chief technology officer for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, was in attendance at the Medical School celebration event. She observed that the competition mirrored recent White House efforts to outsource solutions to some of Washington’s most pressing issues.

“{President Obama] called for all hands on deck, recognizing that Washington doesn’t have a monopoly on the best ideas,” Sturm said. “He called for agencies to tap the top talent and expertise wherever they may be.”

The project began two years ago under the direction of co-leaders Eva C. Guinan, HMS associate professor of pediatrics, and Karim R. Lakhani, Harvard Business School assistant professor. The initiative received funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and was supported by research company InnoCentive and Harvard Catalyst, a University-wide enterprise dedicated to tackling health issues.

The competition was designed to test whether the crowdsourcing strategy that had been used in the private sphere could be applied to the academic health care community.

“This is the first time [it] has been in an academic setting,” Lakhani said of crowdsourcing. “Instead of asking for solutions, let’s think of new research hypotheses. Instead of looking for answers, we’re asking more questions.”

Although the competition has ended, the exploration of these questions will continue through significant research grants, including a million dollar grant that has been funded by the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. Harvard Catalyst also hopes to solicit research proposals from the academic community after further review of the winning ideas.

—Staff writer Barbara B. DePena can be reached at barbara.b.depena@college.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Monica M. Dodge can be reached at mdodge@college.harvard.edu.

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