Crowd Power: A New Way to Solve Health Problems

Researchers turn to crowdsourcing

Crowd Power: A New Way to Solve Health Problems

Claudio Fiocchi, MD, knows how much early detection matters for patients with inflammatory bowel disease. But he also knows today’s diagnostic tools generally detect the disease too late — after it has done extensive damage.

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When Dr. Fiocchi sought a new answer, he turned to the crowd.

The idea: When trying to solve a problem, two heads are better than one. Two heads mean twice the brainpower, twice the ideas. So what happens when a hundred, a thousand or even a million heads work on your problem? Your chances of getting a solution rise.

The concept is “crowdsourcing.” Because you’re reading this article online, you’ve probably experienced crowdsourcing in some form or another.

For example, food company Lay’s asked fans to submit ideas for the next big potato chip flavor. Websites such as Angie’s List and Wikipedia rely on content that users create. Smartphone apps collect info from travelers to generate real-time traffic updates.

“When trying to solve a problem, two heads are better than one. So what happens when a hundred, a thousand or even a million heads work on your problem?”


Paul DiCorleto

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Paul DiCorleto, PhD

Lerner Research Institute

But crowdsourcing can go much deeper, too. It improved disaster response efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy — helping determine the location of open gas stations with fuel and backup generators, for example.

Now, physician-scientists such as Dr. Fiocchi are learning the value of crowdsourcing for solving the toughest medical problems.

Team science

Researchers often spend years working on an idea before hitting a dead end. Then they run out of creative solutions or funding. Crowdsourcing can jump-start a research project or revive a dying one.

For example, a group of University of Washington researchers tried for years to develop an accurate structural model of an HIV-related enzyme — without success. So they challenged video gamers to produce a model using an online puzzle game called Foldit.

After only three weeks, gamers made significant progress in solving the enzyme’s intricate structural patterns. Their results could help researchers understand how HIV multiplies in cells. All it took was a new way of approaching the problem — and a new set of minds working on it.

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Problem solvers

In 2011, Cleveland Clinic became the first medical institution to partner with InnoCentive. The company provides a platform for crowdsourcing medical and research problems.

Here’s how it works: Physicians and scientists post their most perplexing problems online. Then people use the InnoCentive platform to submit solutions for a potential cash prize. To date, more than 4,000 “solvers” from around the world have participated in these challenges. More important, they have solved several of them.

Dr. Fiocchi’s inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) dilemma is one of them. Currently, diagnosis routinely involves a biopsy of gut tissue. Doctors obtain the tissue through an uncomfortable endoscopic procedure. That comes with two problems. First, it’s invasive for patients. Second, it often does not detect the disease until later stages, when damage is already building up. So Dr. Fiocchi asked solvers to focus on new approaches to early detection.

The winning solution combines information about the four major contributing factors for IBD: environment, genomics, immune response and intestinal bacteria. Dr. Fiocchi believes this approach could help doctors diagnose patients early enough to help them make lifestyle changes before damage occurs. Patients could delay or even prevent a lifetime of painful symptoms.

Dr. Fiocchi received many bright ideas, but this one rose to the top. The solver received a cash prize and is now working with him to design a possible clinical trial. In the long term, patients likely will benefit from multiple people — with the right incentive — approaching a problem with entirely fresh perspectives.

That’s the power of the crowd.

[Tweet “It works for ads, fundraising and traffic updates. Can #crowdsourcing solve health problems?”]

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