Merck finds pharma research results with online competition

Merck has helped advance the "gamification" of pharmaceutical research. The drug giant ($MRK) has awarded $40,000 to teams of scientists through a competition to solve a research problem via the online community Kaggle, which announced the results on its blog last week.

As pharma seeks new ways to solve medical problems, Kaggle and other online communities have seen some action from drugmakers. Boehringer Ingelheim was the first pharma group to tap the Kaggle community for a competition to tackle a biological response challenge, PMLive reported. Boehringer and Merck face incredibly high costs that can exceed $1 billion to bring a new drug to market, and they're willing to experiment with online communities to find effective solutions to research problems.

Merck challenged teams to create the best statistical methods of predicting the biological activities of molecules in order to gauge desired on-target and unwanted off-target actions associated with side effects. After the 60-day competition, a team captained by doctoral study George Dahl of the University of Toronto took the $22,000 top prize for its use of neural network models and deep learning algorithms, according to Kaggle's blog. Dahl's team also had a member from the University of Washington.

The University of Washington happens to be the birthplace of Foldit, an online video game for solving protein-folding puzzles that has produced some tantalizing evidence of how a crowd of mostly scientific laypeople with some experts can contribute to important research of diseases such as AIDS.

The online communities mix elements of video games, crowdsourcing and social media to address serious scientific challenges, and Big Pharma companies are clearly taking notice. We'll see what they come up with next.

- see Kaggle's blog
- check out PMLive's article