Basic Research in Parasitic Diseases at the University
of California, San Francisco, California, USA. “Hav-
ing an open-source resource could be extremely
valuable because you can see immediately what oth-
ers have already done.”
But pharma organizations must be willing to
share their knowledge base—and that is why the
notoriously secretive sector is so reluctant.
“Data is what scientists use to establish their
reputation,” Thomas A. Finholt, PhD, associate
dean of research and innovation at the University
of Michigan’s School of Information, told The Wall
Street Journal. “There is no incentive for opening up
The innovation gap is forcing drug giants to rethink
their development model, with an eye on both new
products and the bottom line.
Drug companies have already increased outsourcing, with external development making up
41 percent of the process in 2009, up from 10
percent in 1997, according to Hypios, an online
knowledge-sharing forum. Open source takes cost-cutting efforts a step further by enlisting the help of
legions of volunteer researchers around the world.
Developers work simultaneously, which not only
reduces expenses but also speeds up project schedules.
Some senior industry leaders are actively trying
to get the pharmaceutical industry to make the leap
from outsourcing to open-sourcing. Most notably,
Stephen Friend, PhD, MD, former senior vice
president at drug giant Merck, launched a not-for-profit research organization around a public domain
resource called Sage Commons to pool data from
drug companies and academia in the hopes of deepening the industry’s understanding of disease biology.
Participants can access the organization’s entire
database, but they must share their own results. A
time-delay agreement for results-sharing could satisfy reluctant companies by allowing them to claim
the patents that fuel the bottom line.
Sage already has several pilot projects underway,
including one to analyze data sets from Pfizer to
identify therapeutic targets for oncology drug development. The Big Pharma titan has agreed to put
the data and models generated from the partnership
into Sage’s public database after one year has passed.
Sage launched a similar project with Merck to
collaborate on creating network-based computa-
tional models of cardiovascular disease. Both compa-
nies will share their results—but only one year after
THE GREATER GOOD
Open-source development projects could be particularly powerful for tropical diseases that don’t always
get the attention and investment from the pharmaceutical world. Only 10 percent of commercial
pharmaceutical R&D expenditures address the diseases that make up 90 percent of the world’s disease
burden, according to the journal Nature Reviews.
Looking for ways to close that gap, the Indian
government launched the Open Source Drug
Discovery program in 2008 to develop new medicines for treating tuberculosis. One of the first
projects launched by the program, Connect to
Decode, was a research effort to pool all available
genetic and biological information on
Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the pathogenic bacterial species that is the leading cause of most cases of the
disease. In April, after two years of research, the
team announced it had identified a molecule that
could form the basis for a drug.
Controversy has plagued the project and its
findings, however. The team drew criticism for not
publishing the project’s results in a peer-reviewed
journal, as is the norm in the medical industry.
Other researchers flat-out dismissed the claims as
hype, according to Nature News.
But the program’s leaders argue that because the
information is publicly available, there is no need for
The disagreement reflects the larger culture
change necessary for the pharmaceutical industry to
truly embrace open source.
The concept will only work if industry leaders
embrace it, Dr. McKerrow says. “We can prevent
redundancy, establish new collaborations and foster
solutions more quickly—but only if organizational
leaders make it happen. Such change must be driven
from the top down.”
For an industry showing signs of atrophy, open
source could be just the thing to get the blood (and
innovations) flowing again. —Sarah Fister Gale
PhD, MD, University of
California, San Francisco,