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$500K Challenge Seeks Techniques to Track Single Cells

Loose bills of multiple denominations (borman818)

(Daniel Borman/Flickr)

18 August 2014. A new challenge sponsored by National Institutes of Health is looking for better ways to follow and predict the functioning of a single cell in a complex multi-cell environment, such as in a tumor or a response to treatment. The competition, managed by the open-innovation/challenge company InnoCentive, expects to award prizes totaling up to $500,000. The first deadline for submissions is 15 December 2014 (free registration required).

The challenge, says NIH, is driven by the need to more precisely determine the actions of cells as they behave in the body. The assumption that individual cells of a certain type or in a given population act alike can obscure important differences in functioning, which can have profound implications for detecting and treating diseases. As a result, better techniques are needed to track the behavior and functions of individual cells.

Several methods today can be used to analyze individual cells, says NIH, including mass spectometry, optical technologies, sensors, and electrochemical methods. They generally lack the ability, however, to analyze cell states and performance in a dynamic environment. The challenge, therefore, aims to find new tools for assessing functional changes in individual cells over time as they alter their states, such as becoming cancerous, infected with a virus, or resistant to drugs.

The competition has two stages. In the first stage, participants will submit proposals, due 15 December, outlining their solutions for monitoring meaningful state changes in a single cell over time that can make an impact on at least one biological or clinical issue. A team from NIH’s Single Cell Analysis Program and outside experts will review the proposals and select finalists, who will get a chance to compete in the challenge’s second stage. Up to six awards will be made to finalists from a total first-round purse of $100,000.

In the second stage, finalists will prepare detailed documentation supporting their initial proposals, including data from proof of concept tests. NIH plans to award up to two prizes to the winning entries, totaling up to $400,000. The deadline for second-stage submissions in 30 March 2017, with the winners announced on 31 July 2017. Participants in the challenge will be asked to grant NIH a non-exclusive license to practice their solutions.

One reason for the challenge format, says NIH, is to generate ideas from a larger population than the usual participants in the agency’s grant process. The competition is open to teams from academia and industry, including teams from outside the biomedical field.

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