Have You Heard of Assay Depot? It's the Amazon.com of Medical Research

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Ever since Amazon.com revolutionized online commerce in the 1990s by taking the traditional bookstore service to the Web, the world has seen an explosion in the number and kind of companies equipped to serve customers remotely over the Internet.

It's no surprise, then, that some of these same advances have moved to medicine. It used to be that drug research would be tied to an institution, or a group of scientists. But now, a whole new set of services is making medical research accessible to a wider variety of people.

One example of these can be found in the growing databases worldwide that are teeming with actual patient data from real diseases. A high schooler doing research for a science fair can visit a website, run a search for "breast cancer," and wind up with some 30,000 downloadable digital samples, according to Atul Butte, a professor in the department of pediatrics at Stanford University.

"It's maybe as easy as finding a song on iTunes," Butte told delegates at TEDMED, a three-day conference on health and medicine in Washington, D.C.

But data collection is just one task. Then there's the legwork that goes into doing drug testing and development. And the Internet promises to revolutionize that, too.

"When I need the walls of my house painted," said Butte, "I Google my painter. And when I need a caterer for a party, I use Yelp. Now, when we really, really need to test a new drug, we've got assaydepot.com. It's like a Home Depot for biology and medicine."

Attendees watched as Butte browsed through Assay Depot for diabetic mice to run tests on. He browsed through crowdsourced reviews of test vendors, shopped around by price, and settled on a choice. The experience wasn't unlike looking up the latest gadget or video game on Amazon -- down to the purchasing mechanics.

"Once you're ready," he said, "it's amazing -- 'add to shopping cart'!"

With services like Assay Depot, researchers can order tests performed on chicken proteins, dogs, and a vast array of other complex subjects. It's a simple concept, but its implications are profound -- imagine opening up the world of drug research to those without the resources of a big institution. That means independent scientists, hobbyists and do-it-yourselfers, aspiring professionals, and teachers will all have access to the same tests that major pharmaceutical companies do.

"I think this really beats dissecting frogs," said Butte.

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Brian Fung is the technology writer at National Journal. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and has written for Foreign Policy and The Washington Post.

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