A drug maker has enlisted the help of the general public to track down people with extraordinary characteristics whose genetic make-up could form the basis of new medicines.
UCB, a Belgian pharmaceutical company, has launched a competition to find and describe individuals, families or communities who possess rare characteristics such as low sensitivity to pain or the ability to heal from injury quickly.
It hopes that the submissions will identify groups who have previously gone unnoticed by medical researchers and that the genetic basis of their abilities can be used to develop new drugs.
Dr Duncan McHale, vice president of global exploratory development at UCB said he had an “open mind” about what kind of traits would be most useful to explore.
“For example, individuals or groups who exhibited exceptional wound healing after surgery or trauma might warrant further investigation. Equally, those who have consistently displayed exceptional resistance or immunity to infections, or who, after a robust clinical diagnosis, displayed unusually fast or spontaneous disease remission might be the basis for a winning submission,” he said.
Dame Kay Davies, director of the Medical Research Council’s functional genomics unit at the University of Oxford said UCB’s approach “potentially holds much promise”.
Extraordinary individuals have inspired medical research in the past, but tracking them down has proven difficult, especially since those with protective traits may never come into contact with a medical professional.
A ten-year-old Pakistani street performer’s ability to cut himself with knives and walk on burning coals without experiencing pain caught the attention of researchers in 2006. Scientists have since discovered that he and a handful of other people in the region lack a particular protein on the surface of their nerves and hope to replicate this trait to treat severe pain.
A new osteoporosis drug, currently in late stage clinical trials, is based on the study of an Afrikaner community in South Africa with exceptionally strong and dense bones.
The best submission will be awarded $10,000 (£6,020), and extra bonus awards of at least $1,000 will go to entrants judged to have provided an “especially interesting or relevant entry”.