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One lab’s reject may be

another lab’s cure
By Tania Rojas

hare and you’ll succeed. This is the motto for the open scientists across the world will work to create drugs for
source software movement that started in the 1990s. neglected tropical diseases.
It is characterized by the free sharing of software Is it possible to open source drug research and
to a community of computer programmers who debug development? Sharing proprietary information may cause
and update the software online. The result? High quality millions of dollars to be lost in labor and equipment costs.
computer programs rivaling those of Microsoft and IBM. Furthermore, drug development, unlike software, can take
Fast-forward a decade and a half later, and the musings up to 10 years and more than $800 million. Try making a
of the open source software movement have inspired drug for malaria in your friend’s garage!
the Tropical Diseases Initiative (TDI), a small group of
scientists in the biotechnology industry, to create a web The Need for Open Source Drug Development
forum for scientists to collaborate in developing drugs. By There are strong incentives for open sourcing drug
open sourcing, or freely sharing drug research, TDI hopes research. Western markets today are prohibitive to drug
development for neglected diseases. Currently,
10% of global R&D is focused on 90% of the
global health burden for neglected diseases.
Patent incentives, heavy competition, and sky-
high clinical trial costs have deterred investors
in the biopharmaceutical industry to fund
research initiatives focused on developing
treatments for neglected diseases that affect
only developing nations.
The first and foremost disincentive is
the absence of pharmaceutical markets in
most developing nations. In many cases,
the general public cannot afford drugs from
pharmaceutical providers. In Ethiopia, for
example, where the mean household income
of village dwellers is roughly $140 a year,
only $36 annually can be afforded to pay for
treatment costs.
The low numbers of drugs to treat
tuberculosis (TB) demonstrate an example
of the pharmaceutical industry’s oversight of
third-world R&D efforts. Only 22 active TB
drugs are in development by pharmaceutical
Photo by Marcin Tusinski
companies worldwide—“a startlingly low
figure for a disease with such heavy global
Open source drug development would help provide treatments for those who need them the most. burden,” claims an article published in 2004

50 stanford scientific
by Pharmaprojects, a pharmaceutical R&D database. The patent was about to expire (and loosing 80 – 90 policy
World Health Organization declared TB a global emergency percent in revenues to generic drug competition),
in 1993. The disease affects two billion people –one-third of a pharmaceutical company could benefit from open
the world’s population, and is the largest cause of death of source innovation on the molecule that it would be better
any single infectious disease. positioned to leverage.
For developing nations that cannot afford developing
drugs for infectious diseases, open source drug research is a The Future of Open Source Drug Development
promising opportunity. With open source drug development, pharmaceutical
companies no longer shelve proprietary drug R&D for
Open Sourcing Drug Research neglected diseases. Once the drug is approved, there are no
Currently, scientists can search through online molecular proprietary licenses that disable it from being manufactured
databases to find information on drug targets—molecules by other parties. As a result, pharmaceutical manufacturers
associated with a disease or physical condition—and drug will compete against each other to produce the drug, driving
leads –molecules that cause drug targets to behave a specific down its cost. Artificial markets for pharmaceuticals can be
way, often inhibiting them. However, many drug compounds created in countries that cannot afford them.
that are shelved by pharmaceutical companies are not Open source drug development will be possible if
accessible to the scientific community. Creating a public c o m p a n i e s
database that contains drug lead and target information a r e looking to
not needed by scientists and companies is the first step in collaborate, not
facilitating open source drug development. compete, in creating
The most important feature of this database is that it treatments that are
should provide computer simulations of drug leads that can desperately needed.
be successfully “docked” into the drug target. Certain drug Efficient search
leads, for example, may not fit as well with the drug target. algorithms must
also be developed to
Artificial markets for pharmaceuticals
allow rapid testing
Mycobacterium tuberculosis (TB). TB is the largest
of open source drug cause of death of any single infectious disease.
can be created in countries that targets and leads. In Few pharmaceutical companies are actively
cannot afford them. addition, specialized developing TB treatments.
communication technologies must be created to allow
These drugs will be assigned a low-score, and those with scientists to share their research findings and experiments
better-fitting structures, a higher score. After a lead search online.
has been conducted, the database will return the highest Open source drug development is possible, but it is still
scoring drug leads. This will increase the chance of getting in its beginning stages. With the help of researchers from
potential “hits” - leads that affect the drug target the way institutions such as Stanford, it may start to take hold as a
researchers want it to. way to reduce global disparities in health. S
At the moment, screening a drug target with 2 million
leads takes roughly two weeks. Ideally, the database would Tania Rojas is a senior majoring in Human Biology and Science,
provide lead results instantly. While this would take Technology and Society. She is driven by several passions:
enormous processing power, algorithms can be used to biotechnology, science-fiction, and good karma. Her goal is to
hasten the process. These algorithms would filter through become a non-profit biotech entrepreneur that develops treatments
candidate drug molecules that are compatible with drug for neglected diseases.
leads, saving time and potentially millions in research.
To Learn More:
Creating an Online Drug Development Forum
The creation of an online forum would allow scientists to The Institute of OneWorld Health
find, test, and optimize the best drug candidate. The website The world’s first non-profit pharmaceutical company.
would contain compartmentalized projects overseen by
volunteer scientists. Head scientists overseeing the drug
identification and optimization process would be responsible The Tropical Disease Initiative
for updating experiment results and data research. Along An organization dedicated to developing treatments
the way, project overseers could reward team members’ for tropical diseases.
contributions online. The research conducted by each
department could also be published in scientific journals,
promoting their reputation across the scientific community. Low Hanging Fruit
According to Steve Weber, Director of the Institute of An open source database that shares drug/compound
International Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, screens against parasitic organisms.
the pharmaceutical industry would leverage from the open
source model. By open sourcing a drug compound whose

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