Harvard Biologists Are Creating a ‘Dropbox’ for Medical Research

Researchers will now have access to biomedical data from labs worldwide.

A team of researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS) just received a $1.6 million grant to build a medical Dropbox—in other words, an online search and storage system for experimental data.

Until now, researchers have lacked access to the vast repository of data completed at different labs around the globe. A scientist hoping to analyze someone else’s experiment, for example, might have to track down the physical dataset at a far-off institution, which may or may not be possible.

HMS’ project would majorly expedite that process. Using an open-source system, biologists could comb through thousands of completed experiments from the comfort of their own labs. The addition of a “search” feature would allow them to pinpoint the exact data they need.

In a statement, c0-principal investigator Piotr Sliz described the program’s far-reaching potential:

“By collecting data in one place where people can find it, access it and analyze it, we will be better able to reproduce the entire workflow described in a paper, stimulate the development of new methods, teach and train new scientists and accelerate the growth of the field.”

The three-year grant, donated by the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, is just one indicator of an increasing shift toward openness in the medical community. The once-secretive field of biomedical research has recently begun to embrace the concept of sharing, making data public to help facilitate a less competitive and more efficient research environment.

The Dropbox project is adding to the open-source movement as an extension of the Dataverse, an online storage space for research. Previously based in the social sciences, this grant opens the Dataverse to structural and cell biologists.

Sliz and his team hope the new application will prevent biologists’ hard work from going to waste—and make groundbreaking discoveries faster and easier to come by.


Dana Guth Dana Guth, Digital Intern, Health dguth@bostonmagazine.com