The second and final phase of the NIH Follow that Cell Challenge, which was run in partnership with InnoCentive, concluded last month. Over the two phases that ran between 2014 and 2017, nearly $500,000 in prize money was awarded to Solvers for their work in developing new tools and methods for predicting the behavior and function of a single cell in complex tissue over time.


National Institute of Health (NIH) Follow that Cell

This ability to predict the behavior and function of a single cell over time could help reveal valuable information such as how cells transition from a healthy to diseased state, or identify changes that influence a cell’s responsiveness to treatment. In addition, non-destructive methods for monitoring single cells could assist with early disease detection and allow doctors to better tailor therapies to cells as they evolve throughout the course of a disease.

“All cells of a particular type are not identical,” said James Anderson, M.D., Ph.D., director of NIH’s Division of Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiatives (DPCPSI), which harbors the NIH Common Fund, whose Single Cell Analysis Program (SCAP) sponsored the Challenge, with additional leadership provided by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB). “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. “By using the prize mechanism, the NIH pays only for projects that achieve the program’s objectives. It de-risks an inherently risky goal,” said Anderson.

Phase 1

Phase 1 was a Theoretical Challenge that was launched in August of 2014 and encouraged innovators across a wide range of fields to propose theoretical solutions for tracking and analyzing the behavior and function of individual cells over a period of minutes, hours, and even days. 55 submissions were received in total, which were reviewed by NIH scientific experts and, ultimately, a three-judge panel composed of the directors of the sponsoring NIH components. The 16 finalists that would advance to Phase 2 were announced in March of 2015, with five selected to receive monetary prizes totalling $88,000.

“The large number of highly novel solutions that were proposed underlines the benefits of reaching out to innovators across many different fields. There is tremendous power in merging concepts and expertise from engineering, chemistry, and molecular biology to solve challenging issues in biomedical research. These innovative solutions are a prime example of that power,” said Roderic Pettigrew, Ph.D., M.D., director of NIBIB.

You can read more about the Phase 1 winners here.

Phase 2

Phase 2 was a Reduction to Practice Challenge that launched in March of 2015. It was restricted to the 16 finalists from Phase 1 and required innovators to generate proof-of-concept data for their theoretical proposals. Two biological engineering researchers were chosen as winners: in first place was Nader Pourmand, Ph.D. from the University of California Santa Cruz, winning $300,000; in second was a team led by Paul Blainey, Ph.D. , of the Broad Institute, Cambridge, Massachusetts, winning $100,000.

Pourmand developed an advanced “nanopipette” technology with such a fine tip that it makes it possible to non-invasively sample tiny amounts of intracellular material to measure biochemical changes, multiple times in the same cell – without disturbing its function. Coupled with parallel development of “nanogenomics” technology, this will enable scientists to track molecular changes in cells that develop in response to treatments, such as the development of drug resistance in cancer.

Blainey’s team designed a new molecular technology to streamline cellular analysis and allow for wide adoption by labs. Instead of requiring complex physical sampling of cellular components, it takes advantage of cell secretion pathways to access molecules of interest inside the cell — at multiple time points. Blainey’s findings demonstrated the ability of a cell to “self-report” gene expression.

“The winning solutions can have an immediate impact in research labs and will very likely lead to further innovations by these groups and others,” said NIMH director Joshua Gordon, M.D., Ph.D.

You can read more about the Phase 2 winners here.