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July 18, 2011

"Using crowd-sourcing to contribute to solutions of health care problems."

Philadelphia Inquirer
July 18, 2011

By Gregory Thomas
Inquirer Staff Writer

Will Dampier had a hunch last year that someone outside academia could find a more accurate way to predict how a person suffering from HIV would respond to antiretroviral drugs. He was right.

Dampier, a Ph.D. student in bioinformatics and judo instructor at Drexel University, is on the cutting edge of an emerging trend that uses crowd-sourcing - inviting the wisdom of the crowd - to help improve health care. In spring 2010, he organized a public competition, using genetic material from 1,000 people with HIV who had never received drug treatment to create a model that would predict how each person would respond to medication.

Academics who studied the same data were able to predict patients' responses to therapy with 70 percent accuracy, Dampier says. Of the 109 individuals or teams who decided to enter, it was a college dropout from Baltimore, Internet marketing whiz Chris Raimondi, 39, who topped the pile, writing an algorithm that predicted outcomes with 78 percent accuracy.

Raimondi's algorithm was best at linking specific mutations in HIV to how well a patient will respond to drug therapy.

"The approach of having a public competition is completely innovative," says Richard Harrigan, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia who studies HIV drug efficacy and participated in the contest. "A number of academic approaches use some of the same data sets to address the question, so, in theory, this could be useful."

However, Harrigan says, because Dampier's data set drew from dated patient information, from as far back as the 1980s, the contest results aren't clinically useful for those patients, some of whom may have died. These methods could potentially help doctors personalize patient therapy.

The point of the exercise wasn't to find a cure for HIV, Dampier says. It was a statement about how a more inclusive approach would help solve health-care problems.

"I'm hoping the people who come into these competitions are people who have no biases like [those of academics] because they'll have the most interesting view of the data," says Dampier, assistant director at Drexel University's Center for Integrated Bioinformatics. "In judo, we call it having a 'beginner's mind.' "

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