Crowdfunding is evolving, and it will in time make its way beyond being near-entirely devoted to the production of games, art, and gadgets. Arguably games, art, and gadgets make up the bulk of the first wave of crowdfunding growth because some parts of these industries have been discussing and trying out new business models pretty aggressively for the past decade, empowered by the communication infrastructure of the internet. They headed up the exploration and it was only a matter of time before one of those sparks led to a wildfire. Research in medicine and the life sciences, on the other hand, is an industry dominated by top-down decision-making and large, conservative funding structures. Considerably stigma attaches to scientists who step outside the ivory tower to start businesses and gather popular support for their work. I would hope that one of the consequences of the present success of crowdfunding is that any stigma associated with explaining and advocating your work as a scientist to the broader public will go away. Money talks, after all, and grant-writing is arguably a harder road for novel research, and more fraught with conflicts of interest, than obtaining funds directly from interested supporters.
So I'm pleased to see that modest-sized research projects that are somewhat relevant to aging, longevity, and related areas of medical science are starting to arrive and become funded. The present behemoth in the room, Kickstarter, wants nothing to do with medicine or science at this time and is ceding that part of this still-growing industry to competitors, both dedicated research crowdfunding sites like Microryza, anything-goes platforms like Indiegogo, and of course established communities that raise funds for specific goals without the benefit of flashy new dedicated crowdfunding sites, such as Longecity.
So right now, today, I can point out the successfully funded mouse lifespan study at Indiegogo, the ongoing fundraising for a SENS mitochondrial gene therapy study at Longecity, and I thought I'd also point out this brace of projects at Microryza, of varying relevance and degrees of success in funding:
The cost of obtaining human organs for either transplant or research is a barrier in both healthcare and academia. Using off the shelf components along with common non-toxic materials used to grow in vitro blood vessels and potentially organs can significantly reduce that barrier. [The goal of this project is] to investigate the efficiency of the methods of printing carbohydrate glass for use as a sacrificial tissue structure, and replicate previous studies on printing vascularity. This research will also attempt to address whether or not the human engineered vascularities are sufficient to prevent necrosis in the resulting organ.
We are initially developing a patch for treating cancer, by injecting microscopic particles (or nanoparticles) into the bloodstream that can pinpoint, attach themselves to, and kill cancer cells. They are then naturally disposed by the body. This technology could potentially revolutionise health care and medicine and save millions of lives around the world as well as allow treatment of new types of cancer.
In 2011, a previously unknown mechanism was discovered to control the disease characteristics of the rare genetic disorder Niemann Pick Type C (NPC). NPC is also nicknamed "Childhood Alzheimer's", because the neurological symptoms are remarkably similar to Alzheimer's disease (AD). By re-activating the mechanism, disease characteristics in NPC patient cells were successfully reversed to look like normal cells. As a proof-of-concept, normal cells developed similar characteristics to those seen in NPC patient cells when the mechanism was inhibited. This suggests that this mechanism controls the underlying cause of the disease. The goal of this research is to identify a therapeutic agent that is mechanism specific for the treatment of NPC and AD.
Gene-modification of stem cells by transfection allows us to over-express (over-produce) neurotrophic factors (neuronal cell loving proteins) that may alleviate neurological deficits associated with disease. One protein we are interested in transfecting and over-expressing stem cells with is brain derived neurotrophic factor or BDNF. BDNF has been shown to contribute to the recovery of ischemic stroked rats. BDNF mRNA expression is reduced in the Parkinson's disease substantia nigra and improves cognition in an Alzheimer mouse model. Lastly, BDNF is neuroprotective to retinal ganglion cells (RGCs) in a rat glaucoma model.
Researchers should take note of this and do their own exploration. From the litter of failed and poorly funded relevant science projects you can find at Indiegogo it's clear that you can't just put something up and wait for people to notice. You have to go about this as the mouse lifespan project team did, and as the Longevity community does: the project site is only a business card and a place to donate, nothing more. It's a flag, and you have to put in the work to wave that flag, to talk to the community, to find your supporters and motivate them, provide updates, videos, and dialogs with the scientists involved. As more and more research groups try this, however, and establish watering holes like Microryza or Indiegogo, the halo of supporters with overlapping interests will grow, and it will become ever easier to find people who want to fund specific scientific goals.
I think that this is a grand future, one in which funding and advocacy merge naturally at the grassroots level to help advance a thousand needful projects that would otherwise have languished in the old-style funding infrastructure. It is good to see even slow progress towards that end: initial successes will encourage other forward-thinking researchers to join in and experiment, and so the landslide begins.