Open Source Drug Discovery for Malaria
28 February 2012
Imagine if drug research could happen with inputs from thousands of scientists around the world sharing data in real time, with the process not slowed down by patents and commercial interests. To explore the issues around this new approach to drug discovery, Dr Mat Todd, from the School of Chemistry, led a meeting on Open Source Drug Discovery for Malaria on 24 February.
Held on campus at the University of Sydney, as well as streamed live, the 'unconference' was opened by Professor Mary O'Kane, Chief Scientist and Engineer of NSW.
Professor O'Kane said, "This is something that I've been passionate about for a long time. The application of an open source approach to developing drugs for malaria is significant, as the malarial problem is a major one. It's an area that will have great impact in terms of people's lives, but also economic impact, because if you can deal with these long term chronic diseases, you can change the economies of the poorest nations in the world.
"I see the discussion today as part of a wider series of discussions about how we're doing science, and research more generally, in a very different way. I was delighted to see in the program for today that you will be talking not just about the malaria problem itself and how to tackle it, but also some of the problems that come up as we move to new science methods, and open innovation and open science," said Professor O'Kane.
"I look forward to the outcomes of today's meeting and I'll be tuning in throughout the day to follow the discussions online," said Professor O'Kane.
Open source drug discovery is a novel concept where new drugs are developed using a process where all data and ideas are shared as they are discovered, and anyone may participate at any level. The open nature of the work means there are no patents and that any technology is both academically and commercially exploitable by whoever wishes to do so.
"Research and development of new drugs is normally done in a closed way by pharmaceutical companies, who fund the research in order to own the resultant medicines," said Dr Todd.
"This makes business sense, as there are huge profits to be made from new pharmaceuticals. However, there are a number of diseases that simply do not interest pharmaceutical companies, because there's little money to be made from these drugs. These diseases are normally ones affecting developing nations, such as malaria," explained Dr Todd.
"So the concept of open source drug discovery makes sense for research on drugs for these diseases. It's a new concept and there are lots of issues to figure out in terms of how it would actually work, so that's why it was important for us to hold this full day discussion."
While no drug has ever been discovered using an open source approach, Dr Todd led an open source project that discovered a new way to produce medicine now used worldwide for the treatment of Bilharzia, a terrible parasitic disease that afflicts millions of the world's poorest people. This innovative approach won Dr Todd the Emerging Research category of the NSW Science and Engineering Awards in 2011.
"By sharing all our data and ideas, and by working with anyone on the project, we solved a tough scientific problem faster than if we had approached it in a traditional way where everything is behind closed doors. I think our success on the Bilharzia drug has quite significant and general implications for how we should be doing research in the future."
Taking his open source approach to finding a new drug for malaria, Dr Todd predicts that it will have the greatest benefits in the early phases - from the discovery of biologically active compounds, to improving these compounds through iterative chemical synthesis and biological evaluation.
"Drug discovery is a complex process involving many different stages and the open source method has huge potential for improving the early phases before clinical trials have commenced. I can also see the open source approach being really effective in the process chemistry phase, where we create efficient chemical synthesis of the new drug on a large scale," explained Dr Todd.
The meeting was a success, with 25 people attending the meeting at the University of Sydney and others participating online.
"We answered some very important questions about the possibility of drug discovery, and I think the meeting sessions will get cited by a bunch of people once we shorten and annotate them and get them online," said Dr Todd.
"A key message from the day was the way the current patent system can stifle innovation - that's partly why the Raising the Bar bill is currently before the Senate. Our meeting was about going that extra mile and abandoning patents completely.
"Mary Moran - Director of Policy Cures, an independent group that focuses on the creation of new pharmaceuticals for neglected diseases - eloquently spoke about the power of open source in drug discovery and its key benefit of being able to identify problems earlier because there are more people looking at the problem," said Dr Todd.
"It's the crucial idea of open source drug discovery - solving a problem is easier with more people involved!"
The event was made possible by financial support from the University of Sydney's International Program Development Fund and the Medicines for Malaria Venture, as well as logistical support from the School of Chemistry.
Read more about the Open Source Drug Discovery for Malaria meeting at: http://openwetware.org/wiki/OSDDMalaria:OSDD_Malaria_Meeting_Sydney_2012
Follow progress on the project at: www.thesynapticleap.org/malaria/community or follow news on Twitter (@osddmalaria).
Contact: Katynna Gill
Phone: 02 9351 6997