Can we crowdfund clinical research?

Kickstarter for drug trials.

Kickstarter's high-profile launch in the UK last month marks yet another step towards ubiquity for a thoroughly 21st century funding model. Driven by the simplicity of making online payments, crowdfunding sidesteps the limitations of traditional investment channels, instead harnessing the collective power of thousands of small-scale donations from the general public.

Kickstarter might have played host to more than $400 million in crowdfunded pledges since its launch in 2009, but one glance at the site's top ten funded projects – video games, fancy consumer tech, more video games – gives an indication of the relatively narrow scope of the crowdfunding model. Crowdfunding's main niche remains funding creative projects like albums, films and games, where the passion of fans can prompt huge surges in mass donation to bankroll new projects. But as this grass-roots funding method gains traction, new possibilities are beginning to open up.

Take drug development funding. In an era of shrinking government budgets and major funding cuts, could crowdfunding unlock a new source of financial support for the next generation of treatments and cures? Kickstarter excludes health and medical technologies from its fundable projects, but other companies are starting to catch on. MedStartr, a new crowdfunding platform launched this summer, got the ball rolling with a site dedicated to crowdfunding healthcare-related projects like physician videoconferencing, cancer support programmes and therapeutic exercise equipment. But another start-up has taken the concept a step further.

CureLauncher is a recently-launched website dedicated to crowdfunding early-stage clinical development as well as connecting patients and their families to the cutting edge of medical research. The site aims to provide alternative funding for important research projects and clinical trials in the US through large numbers of small contributions, which could be used as primary funding or as bridge funding so projects can continue to develop their science while they wait for federal grants. Like Kickstarter, CureLauncher takes a small percentage of each pledge to make its profit.

The website only launched in October, so doesn't yet have any major success stories to pin on its wall. Nevertheless, if the idea takes off, the potential advantages for US researchers are startling. With the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) facing $2.5 billion in budgets cuts for 2013, CureLauncher offers a platform to galvanise the people affected by chronic diseases and help make up this massive shortfall. 91 per cent of donations go directly to the research projects, and scientists only have to wait 30-45 days for their funds, as opposed to the two years it often takes for NIH funding to materialise. The site only works with heavily scrutinised NIH-level research, which might allay some fears about democratising a traditionally cautious and bureaucratic funding process.

But for CureLauncher's crowdfunding model to thrive in the long-term, it needs to create mass awareness of its sponsored projects, and connect to a large community of funders. That's why its creators, pharma lawyer Steve Goldner and product development expert Dave Fuehrer, have also placed a heavy emphasis on fostering a two-way relationship between researchers and the public. Donors can correspond with the researchers they are donating to, and the site also lists hundreds of enrolling clinical trials – their treatments explained without pharmajargon – so that patients can access early treatment.

It's still early days for CureLauncher, but its founders see the site as a global solution to a global problem, with ambitions to bring struggling research projects outside the US into the fold. It might be too early to tell if the crowdfunding model will work for drug research, but Kickstarter's track record proves that with enough public demand, huge sums of cash can be raised. And if the American public can shell out more than $3 m for a new range of fantasy gaming miniatures, one would hope it can scrape together a few dollars for potentially life-saving medical research.

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CureLauncher seeks small scale donations. Photograph: Getty Images


Chris Lo is a senior technology writer for the NRI Digital network.

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How the shadow cabinet forced Jeremy Corbyn not to change Labour policy on Syria air strikes

Frontbenchers made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the leader backed down. 

Jeremy Corbyn had been forced to back down once before the start of today's shadow cabinet meeting on Syria, offering Labour MPs a free vote on air strikes against Isis. By the end of the two-hour gathering, he had backed down twice.

At the start of the meeting, Corbyn's office briefed the Guardian that while he would hold a free vote, party policy would be changed to oppose military action, an attempt to claim partial victory. But shadow cabinet members, led by Andy Burnham, argued that this was "unacceptable" and an attempt to divide MPs from members. Burnham, who is not persuaded by the case for air strikes, warned that colleagues who voted against the party's proposed position would become targets for abuse, undermining the principle of a free vote. Jon Ashworth, the shadow minister without portfolio and NEC member, said that Labour's policy remained the motion passed by this year's conference, which was open to competing interpretations (though most believe the tests it set for military action have been met). Party policy could not be changed without going through a similarly formal process, he argued. 

When Corbyn's team suggested that the issue be resolved after the meeting, members made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the Labour leader had backed down. By the end, only Corbyn allies Diane Abbot and Jon Trickett argued that party policy should be changed to oppose military action. John McDonnell, who has long argued for a free vote, took a more "conciliatory" approach, I'm told. It was when Hilary Benn said that he would be prepared to speak from the backbenches in the Syria debate, in order to avoid opposing party policy, that Corbyn realised he would have to give way. The Labour leader and the shadow foreign secretary will now advocate opposing positions from the frontbench when MPs meet, with Corbyn opening and Benn closing. 

The meeting had begun with members, including some who reject military action, complaining about the "discorteous" and "deplorable" manner in which the issue had been handled. As I reported last week, there was outrage when Corbyn wrote to MPs opposing air strikes without first informing the shadow cabinet. There was anger today when, at 2:07pm, seven minutes after the meeting began, some members received an update from the Guardian revealing that a free vote would be held but that party policy would be changed to oppose military action. This "farcical moment", in the words of one present (Corbyn is said to have been unaware of the briefing), only hardened shadow cabinet members' resolve to force their leader to back down - and he did. 

In a statement released following the meeting, a Corbyn spokesperson confirmed that a free vote would be held but made no reference to party policy: 

"Today's Shadow Cabinet agreed to back Jeremy Corbyn's recommendation of a free vote on the Government's proposal to authorise UK bombing in Syria.   

"The Shadow Cabinet decided to support the call for David Cameron to step back from the rush to war and hold a full two day debate in the House of Commons on such a crucial national decision.  

"Shadow Cabinet members agreed to call David Cameron to account on the unanswered questions raised by his case for bombing: including how it would accelerate a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war; what ground troops would take territory evacuated by ISIS; military co-ordination and strategy; the refugee crisis and the imperative to cut-off of supplies to ISIS."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.