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Cherish the Thoughts

Harvard uses crowdsourcing to generate ideas on diabetes

Crowdsourcing, the practice of solving problems by tapping the creativity of large groups rather than individual experts, has solved puzzles in fields such as marketing, engineering, and software design. But can the wisdom of crowds help cure disease?

In February, Harvard Catalyst, the HMS clinical and translational research center, asked Harvard’s community as well as the general public to answer the question: What do we need to know to cure type 1 diabetes?

“We invited people to share their out-of-the-box questions and proposals,” says Lee Nadler ’73, Harvard Catalyst director and HMS dean for clinical and translational research. “We wanted participants to apply their insights to this question.”

The invitation worked. The competition received 190 entries from which a large, multidisciplinary panel selected a dozen pioneering ones. Winning ideas came from people with diabetes, graduate students, a college student, a human resources representative, and researchers who are not experts in the field.

Among the entries chosen were ones that called for fine-tuning diabetes management by developing a numerical scale for personalizing treatment; investigating immune system interactions with lipids as well as with cells and proteins for insights into the disease; and developing “smart” liposomes that could carry diabetes drugs directly to the pancreas. Working with the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, Harvard Catalyst plans to solicit research proposals from within the Harvard research community to carry out some or all of the winning ideas.

Visit Mining the ‘Wisdom of Crowds’ to Attack Disease for details about the winners and their ideas.

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