Open source removes secrecy in drug research

Open source removes secrecy in drug research

'Traditional research is often a world of secrecy. A small group works on a project and when there’s a result, a paper might be published. Now, the open source approach, familiar in software development, is being used in drug research. As Alice Williamson reports, the collaborative approach of open source science breaks down barriers and facilitates open discussion as projects are underway.'

Alice Williamson, one of Australia's five under-40 science stars from 2015, interviews some researchers involved in the Open Source Malaria Consortium for Australia's ABC Radio National Science Show:

Matt Todd: The openness prohibits the pharmaceutical industry from taking part as full partners because that's completely against their business model, which relies on secrecy and patents as part of the financial model. However, it's interesting that most of the inputs I think that we've had to open projects have come from the current pharmaceutical industry or from people who used to be employed by the pharmaceutical industry, which had relatively little input from traditional academic groups. So I think the pharma industry wants the efficiency of the open approach, in a sense to allow the best people to work on the problems, but they just can't do it directly themselves. So I think they are very happy to be participants and collaborators rather than adopting this research mechanism for their own projects.

Alice Williamson: And if you are revealing all of these structures and this data online, aren't you worried about somebody perhaps scooping you, getting there first?

Matt Todd: Well, sure, people are perfectly at liberty to do that in the sense that the licence of the project is that anybody can take anything they want from the project and use anything for any purpose, including to make money, as long as they cite us. So if someone comes along and sees one of our molecules that cures malaria, for example the current set that work in mice and are very promising as a possible antimalarial, and they see a way of taking that compound further to market for example, that would be fantastic for us because that would mean that someone is dedicated to taking this compound on. So there's nothing to stop that. If it happened we'd do something else. The way we are trying to do this is to have the best people solving the problems, and if that means somebody else finishes off what we start, then so be it.

Alice Williamson: Without patents do you foresee any problems with taking a drug to the market should you find a great candidate?

Matt Todd: So there are very few precedents. There are examples of molecules that have gone all the way to market without patents, such as the polio vaccine and penicillin for example. These things were taken all the way through without any patent protection. It's been done before, it's just extremely atypical. So we're going to have to find ways of doing this, that's part of the challenge in the next phase. There are increasingly calls for more investment from the public sector, from philanthropic sources to taking drugs all the way through to market, particularly in the areas of market failure where there isn't really that much of a profit incentive. So malaria is one and perhaps Ebola is another where you might think, well, perhaps the not-for-profit sector needs to step up here because there isn't that much market incentive for pharmaceutical companies to take these things through.

Full interview transcript:

Podcast (~19 minutes):

Hopefully Open Source can do for drug development what it has done for the Internet.  A 2012 survey found that 75% of the top 10,000 websites are served using open source software:

Last year another survey found that 78% of companies run part or all of its operations on open source software:

And Open Source Software really took off last year:

Wikipedia's Open Source Software article:

Note: 'A report by the Standish Group (from 2008) states that adoption of open-source software models has resulted in savings of about $60 billion per year to consumers'.


Photo: Freesias flowering of course

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