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The National Institutes of Health is challenging science innovators to compete for prizes totaling up to $500,000, by developing new ways to track the health status of a single cell in complex tissue over time. The NIH Follow that Cell Challenge seeks tools that would, for example, monitor a cell in the process of becoming cancerous, detect changes due to a disease-causing virus, or track how a cell responds to treatment.

"Advances in cellular analysis promise earlier diagnosis and improved therapies for diseases, from cancer to Alzheimer's," said James Anderson, M.D., Ph.D., director of NIH's Division of Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiatives (DPCPSI). "These prizes will also help to stimulate new businesses and economic growth in our biomedical communities."

The challenge aims to generate creative ideas and methods for following and predicting a single cell's behavior and function over time in a complex multicellular environment preferably using multiple integrated measures to detect its changing state.

The challenge is issued under America COMPETES, by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB), on behalf of the NIH Common Fund's Single Cell Analysis Program (SCAP), part of DPCPSI.

"All cells of a particular type are not identical," explained Anderson. "An individual cell may become very different, affecting the health and function of its entire population. Today's tools provide mostly snapshots of single cells, not the movie of changes over time that we need to understand cell states and transitions from one state to another."

Although several grant-supported studies exploring these issues are underway, SCAP sought to stimulate efforts beyond academia among a more diverse community than researchers who typically apply for NIH grants. These include innovators and problem solvers from U.S. industry research and development and even from fields outside of biomedicine.

Phase 1 of the challenge, which begins today, seeks theoretical, written solutions, due by Dec. 15, 2014. Submissions will be screened by panels of outside and NIH staff experts prior to review by a three-judge panel consisting of the NIMH, NIBIB, and DPCPSI directors, who will award up to six prizes totaling $100,000, to be announced March 16, 2015.

Phase 1 winners and runners-up will be eligible to participate in Phase 2, a "Reduction to Practice" to provide proof of concept data related to their Phase 1 entries. These submissions will be due March 30, 2017. One or two winning solutions will receive prizes totaling $400,000, to be announced July 31, 2017.

Details of the criteria by which entries will be evaluated were published in the Federal Register Aug. 11, 2014. A registration link for the Challenge is available on the SCAP Challenge page and on the Follow That Cell website maintained by InnoCentive, Inc., which is hosting and marketing the challenge under contract with NIH. While only citizens or permanent residents of the United States are eligible to compete individually as solvers, non-citizens may participate as a member of a team.

"We believe that combining the immense brainpower of scientists, engineers and innovators will propel the development of the next generation of single cell analysis, galvanizing this field," said Anderson.


Contact: Jules Asher
NIH/National Institute of Mental Health

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