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MIT students propose X-Prizes for health

New collaboration with foundation yields innovative ideas

Can a prize designed for the high-tech challenge of helping to get people into space be applied to solving low-tech, down-to-Earth problems of life and death? Pose the question to a class of MIT students and two out of three give a resounding "yes." And the other third adds a strong "maybe."

That was the outcome of the first class held under a new collaboration between MIT and the California-based X-Prize Foundation, whose founder and chairman is MIT alumnus Peter Diamandis '83, SM '88 HST '89. The class had the task of trying to design a new $10 million X-Prize aimed at addressing health-care issues in the developing world.

The class was taught by Erika Wagner SM '02, PhD '07, an instructor in the School of Engineering and director of the new collaboration, X-Prize Lab @ MIT. The class formed three teams, each of which was to come up with a detailed proposal.

Two of the teams did just that, proposing specific awards that the foundation may decide to adopt. But the third team, after studying several possibilities, found major problems with either identifying specific goals that weren't already the subject of intense research, or of being able to quantify the outcomes in a reliable way to award the prize. Instead, they offered advice to the foundation on how to address such problems in the future, such as by offering several smaller prizes instead of a single large one.

Of the specific proposals, one team suggested a prize for a major milestone in dealing with the problem of TB, which remains endemic in 22 nations and costs 1.7 million lives every year. Effective treatments exist, but the testing is relatively expensive and often misses active cases. So they proposed a $10 million prize for a new cheap, fast and accurate diagnostic system that could reach most of the 50 percent of cases that now go undiagnosed. Winning the prize would require not just laboratory demonstrations but field tests on 1,000 patients to show that it really works under difficult conditions.

"We could have chosen to focus on a number of problems," said team member Judy Maro, a graduate student in the Technology and Policy Program. "We chose TB on the basis of impact--where could we make the greatest difference." With AIDS, for example, effective and affordable treatments are not yet available and efforts to combat the disease are already receiving considerable attention and funding.

The second proposal was for a simple, portable system that could be used by community health workers to carry out initial diagnostic evaluations for the 10 most widespread fatal, transmissible diseases. Such screening could lead to prescriptions of drugs or treatment for some conditions or referral to a doctor or nurse for conditions that require skilled care or more difficult diagnosis.

The team proposed that to win, the new device would have to lead to a fourfold improvement in the level of diagnosis of these major killers, which in an impoverished country like Malawi now stands at about 12 percent because so few people live within reasonable distance of a health professional. "There are 12 million people dying in the developing world from treatable diseases," said team member Devon Roshan, a senior in chemical engineering.

The whole concept of the X-Prizes, which started with the Ansari X-Prize for the first privately funded craft to reach space (won in 2004 by SpaceShipOne), is "changing the way people think about subjects," Diamandis said. "We want to encourage unrestrained, open-platform thinking." And that's why the foundation has formed this new partnership with MIT, he says. "We're looking for MIT students to shake things up for us. We're looking for unconventional ideas."

The final presentations by the class last Friday were judged by four members of the X-Prize board, including Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway transporter and founder of Deka Research & Development; Barry Thompson, a former investment banker who works on incubation of startup companes; Jeffrey Shames, executive in residence at the MIT Sloan School of Management; and Diamandis. The reports will be evaluated later by the foundation's full board.

"There's a lot of interest in the TB one, in particular," Diamandis says.

Next fall, there will be another MIT X-Prize course, this time to formulate possible prizes for sustainable energy solutions.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 14, 2008 (download PDF).

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