Online Game Crowdsources Ideas to Accelerate Medical Research

The scenario: A widespread contamination triggered a neurological disease that could infect as many as 100 million people in the U.S. What do we do? The Breakthroughs to Cures game generates over 3,000 ideas.


This past fall, a widespread contamination triggered a neurological disease that could infect as many as 100 million people in the U.S.

Nobody died as a result of the disaster; it was a scenario put forth by Breakthroughs to Cures, an online idea-generating game intended to quicken the pace of medical research and speed up the time to market for new medicines.

We were trying to find out by running the game–were we
missing some things that we should include in our specific model [of
medical research]? We didn’t see anything missing in our current
efforts,” says Scott Johnson, President and Founder of the Myelin Repair Foundation, one of the game’s hosts.

The game, also hosted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio and the Institute for the Future, was held last year on October 7th and November 9th. Over 400 players–including medical professionals, patients, and students–viewed a video on the disaster scenario and shared ideas in 140 characters or less about how to accelerate medical innovation and research. These ideas triggered a number of brainstorms, which ultimately led to over 3,000 ideas.

The MRF did come away with ideas that could be useful in the future. Among them: the use of mobile health coaching for clinical trials (supported by in-home telehealth monitoring and body sensors that report back to centralized data repositories), genetically unique drug trials, and broadening social networks to bring together clinical data, genomic information, and environmental health data for researchers.

Johnson tells Fast Company that, “99.9 percent of the population has no idea how the medical research process functions, or why it doesn’t function and produce treatments that the public needs. Part of the value of the game is getting the notion out there that the current system
has lots of flaws but there are simple ideas that could be implemented to help deal with some of those issues.”


There is no plan to hold another Breakthroughs the Cures gaming event anytime soon, but the MRF hasn’t ruled it out. Next time, the organization would run the event for longer–maybe even leaving it open-ended for players to revisit at their leisure, explains Carol Menaker, Director of Communications for the MRF. “As far as I’m concerned,” she says, “it was a successful experiment.”

Check out the MRF’s disaster scenario below.

Follow Fast Company on Twitter. Ariel Schwartz can be reached by email.


About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more