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Stigmergy, Anyone?

By Ernie Bush

September 27, 2011 | The Bush Doctrine | Stigmergy is currently defined in Wikipedia as:

“A mechanism of indirect coordination between agents or actions. The principle is that the trace left in the environment by an action stimulates the performance of a next action, by the same or a different agent. In that way, subsequent actions tend to reinforce and build on each other, leading to the spontaneous emergence of coherent, apparently systematic activity. Stigmergy is a form of self-organization. It produces complex, seemingly intelligent structures, without need for any planning, control, or even direct communication between the agents. As such it supports efficient collaboration between extremely simple agents, who lack any memory, intelligence or even individual awareness of each other… Stigmergy was first observed in social insects, however it is not restricted to eusocial creatures, or even to physical systems. On the Internet there are many collective projects where users interact only by modifying local parts of their shared virtual environment. Wikipedia is an example of this.”

Open Virtual Collaboration is another example, where a company posts a problem on the Web and rewards those who contribute a solution, and this is often held up as a successful commercial application of stigmergy. So are there other practical applications of stigmergy in pharmaceutical R&D?

The Drug Safety Executive Council (DSEC, was established in 2007 to promote collaboration in developing pharma R&D safety assessment practices. (Ed Note: DSEC is a sister organization to Bio•IT World.) It is a virtual community of more than 2,000 pharma company employees that sponsors several consortia. Their collective missions are to improve the economics and effectiveness of safety evaluation (especially in the areas of discovery toxicology and non-clinical development). One of DSEC’s primary goals is to promote the introduction, qualification, and implementation of new technologies that improve the prediction of clinical adverse events before the initiation of human studies thus decreasing the failure rate of drugs in clinical trials due to unexpected safety findings.

In an effort to create stigmergy in this space, DSEC has implemented a new tool—a virtual poster gallery that enables scientists and startup companies to present summaries of their new technologies in a virtual exhibit on the DSEC website (

So far, more than 60 posters have been uploaded to the site, which are presented in four categories: Cardiovascular Toxicity, Discovery Pharmacology, Genetic Toxicity and Hepatic Toxicity. It is free to upload and display the posters and available to anyone who would like to share their poster with the DSEC community. Our hope is that providing this opportunity for stigmergy will stimulate others not only to upload other posters but also to investigate and evaluate the new technologies being exhibited.

To further enhance the interest in this virtual poster exhibit, the DSEC organization has implemented what might be called iterative stigmergy (i.e. an act of stigmergy intended to promote another act of stigmergy) by holding quarterly innovation awards competitions. In this competition, four recently uploaded posters are nominated by the chairman of the DSEC Advisory Board as top examples of new technology innovation and the DSEC members are asked to vote on one of these as their favorite new technology poster for that quarter. For Q2 2011, the winner was VivaQuant’s poster, A Novel Algorithm for Highly Automated Measurement of QT Interval. Our congratulations to VivQuant and to all the nominees.

If you have a poster that you would like to share with the membership of DSEC (to stigmergise?), you can visit the DSEC website or contact my colleague Brian Murphy, head of business development for Cambridge Healthtech Associates at

Finally, if you have seen other examples of stigmergy in pharma R&D, we would very much like to hear about them. Send me a note pointing out or demonstrating your examples and I will report on them in future columns.

May the stigmergy be with you!

Ernie Bush is VP and scientific director of Cambridge Health Associates. He can be reached at:

This article also appeared in the 2011 September-October issue of Bio-IT World magazine.
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