UCB has turned to crowdsourcing in an effort to identify rare phenotypes that could inform drug discovery and development for severe diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis or multiple sclerosis.

The company has partnered with problem-solving specialists InnoCentive for the development and global launch of the UCB ‘Innovation Challenge’.

UCB will tap into InnoCentive’s challenge methodology, cloud-based technology and network of thousands of registered problem solvers to underpin the crowdsourcing initiative.

Relevant and interesting

Challenge entrants are being asked for submissions that describe a relevant, interesting and rare human phenotype – for example, people who are somehow protected from disease or possess exceptional tissue regeneration.

The best submission will receive an award of US$10,000, while bonus awards of no less than US$1,000 each will be paid to contestants deemed to have submitted an especially interesting or relevant entry.

Professor Dame Kay Davies, director of the Medical Research Council’s Functional Genomics Unit at the University of Oxford in the UK, described the Challenge as “an innovative approach to developing new medicines which potentially holds much promise”.

Traditionally, finding individuals and communities with medically interesting phenotypes has proved difficult, Davies noted.

Global super-network

Through its ‘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 characteristics", she commented. "This could provide a useful head start in identifying new areas of medical research”.

Genetic Alliance UK, the national charity bringing together more than 160 patient organisations, is also backing the initiative.

As Alliance director Alastair Kent explained, “without active participation we may miss the genetic key to solving some of the world’s most difficult to treat illnesses”.

Open innovation

UCB says it is already a leading player in open innovation and collaborative partnerships to build “super-networks of academics, companies and patients focusing on finding the next major medical breakthroughs for severe diseases”.

By working in this way, the company wants to drive a “paradigm shift” that can accelerate drug discovery, raise the quality of compounds selected for further development, and ultimately improve patient outcomes.

Eligibility criteria

To be eligible for an award, ‘Innovation Challenge’, submissions must describe phenotypes that can be studied to provide information useful in the development of new disease-prevention strategies.

Otherwise, commented Dr Duncan McHale, vice president of global exploratory development, UCB has “a completely open mind about what phenotypes might be most appropriate to explore”.

That could be individuals or groups who exhibit exceptional wound healing after surgery or trauma. Alternatively, it might involve people who have consistently displayed exceptional resistance or immunity to infections or who, after a robust clinical diagnosis, display unusually swift or spontaneous disease remission

The challenge is also open to researchers with ideas about how best to identify exceptional phenotypes; or who, “through a phenotype based approach, identify a rare condition that could provide insights valuable in treating or preventing a more common condition”, UCB noted.