Crowdsourcing the Cure for Cancer

Thanks to Cancer Commons, a Web application launched last week, the public has greater access to cutting-edge cancer treatments sooner than ever before. As the Associated Press reported in a January 16th article, the creator of the app, Marty Tenenbaum, was diagnosed with a highly dangerous form of skin cancer in the late 90’s. A successful e-commerce entrepreneur, Tenenbaum believed that he would not have survived if it weren’t for his personal connections at The National Cancer Institute where he was able to gain access to experimental treatments.

Two decades later, Tenenbaum has thrown himself into creating an application to compile the ever-growing research on cancer, making it available to patients and oncologists alike. Tenenbaum explained that, “I’m just trying to pull together all the pieces that are needed to do a real, rational attack on cancer.” This could be a last resort for patients running out of options. Ideally, Cancer Commons would guide these patients to clinical trials being conducted on potentially life-saving treatments.

Cancer Commons is part of the growing open science movement which encourages scientists to breakdown the traditional fortress of secrecy that surrounds their research. Through a growing number of online programs, scientists are sharing their research, data, article proposals, and even lab notebooks, thereby opening the door to immediate feedback from the scientific community rather than waiting months or years for the publication of journal articles. The rate at which scientific discoveries are made could be rapidly accelerated. On the other hand, open science application puts scientists in an incredibly vulnerable position. Years of work could go down the drain if another scientist publishes the results as their own. Nonetheless, the benefits may outweigh the personal risks here – especially when those benefits are life-saving cancer treatments.

In what other areas could open science help generated urgently needed scientific discoveries? Could it help us find solutions to global warming or the depletion of fossil fuels? What fresh risks come with this new form of publishing?

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