Jul 1, 2008

An 'open source' approach to drug discovery

Pill bottle. Photo by net_efekt

Why should we worry about intellectual property protection for infectious diseases and diseases of the poor? Why can't we share our ideas and brains to create an open source platform for drugs for these diseases in the same way that the human genome has been sequenced and the Internet developed?
These are some questions posed by geneticist Samir Brahmachari in an interview published at SciDev.net. It makes an interesting reading.

Samir Brahmachari is the director general of India's Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), a network of 38 government laboratories. He is starting an 'open source' approach to drug discovery, starting with tuberculosis (TB). His aim: a system where researchers all over the world work on different areas of drug design and deposit their findings into an open database for others to use and comment on — particularly for infectious diseases that affect the world's poor.

Here I am just gathering a few selected parts from the interview, and adding (see below) a collection of links related to open-source drug discovery.

Excerpts from the interview:
Most public-funded institutions do a lot of biomedical research but the last mile of drug discovery is left to the pharmaceutical industry — which is a 'closed-door' activity.

My idea is that affordable drugs are a right for all, and all drugs can be made available. When it comes to TB or diseases of the poor — where the market incentive is very small — it is not possible to convince the pharmaceutical companies to work on these drugs. Therefore it is the responsibility of public-funded institutions to participate.
Targeted drugs that are market driven — or that rich people can afford — can be made by the [patent-protected] route. But for drugs that are not driven by the market and are needed by the poor, open source is an advantage.
An open source approach runs against the current global emphasis on tightening patents and intellectual property rights. Will it survive opposition from powerful pharmaceutical companies inside and outside India?

On the contrary, you will be surprised to learn that, in the case of TB, many pharmaceutical companies have shown interest in this concept and responded to my initiative. They would like to see a drug breakthrough because of the huge number of patients who need it.

Also, today the private sector is increasingly talking about corporate social responsibility. Private companies are becoming conscious of their social responsibility and many would like to join such initiatives. And there are many private non-profit foundations, such as Bill Gates' Foundation, who support affordable drugs initiatives.

Are you not worried that open source discovery will reduce the incentive for pharmaceutical companies to invest in research, and that public sources will lack the funds to make up the difference?

I am not worried about that. If the private companies do not come forward with research and development in neglected diseases, then it becomes the obligation and responsibility of the public-funded institutes to undertake the research. India is now no longer a poor country and the Indian government can afford to invest money for such research.
Even big pharmaceutical companies, such as AstraZeneca, and leading universities, such as Berkeley, have shown interest in collaboration. Sabeer Bhatia, a founder of Microsoft's Hotmail, has agreed to support us by developing the software.
How applicable is open source to other technological areas?

An important point — somewhat overlooked — is the participation of brilliant minds in the open source model. Where knowledge is free, brilliance flourishes. I believe that, in principle, technology areas such as energy, water and food can also benefit from the open source model. In the case of energy, we may invite solutions to tap solar energy, wind energy, hydropower and other sectors. Similar methods could be adopted in other areas.
When it comes to infectious diseases, compulsory licensing [where pharmaceutical companies must allow their product to be produced cheaply by a country in a medical emergency] should be used on all drug patents so that we can make the drug at low cost and make it affordable for poor people.

The interview is freely available at:
T. V. Padma. Q&A: Advocating open source drugs. SciDev.Net (June 12, 2008).

Links related to open-source drug discovery:

Image credits: Pill bottle by net_efekt (Christian Guthier). Source: Flickr.

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