Advancing antimalarial drug research through open source initiatives
"Conventional drug discovery is typically clothed in secrecy, as scientists compete to find the next billion-dollar blockbuster. For 'diseases of poverty' such as malaria, however, the low commercial value of the end-product means that the need for secrecy and competition is diminished, if not counterproductive. Scientists across the world are now starting to conduct research on the diseases that affect the world's poorest more openly, and to great effect. In 2010, GlaxoSmithKline, the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation and St Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee released the details of 20,200 compounds active against malaria (malaria 'hits') into the public domain. This signalled a landmark in antimalarial drug development and the community responded with enthusiasm. Many researchers were keen to contribute and make a difference, yet many were saying that what they really needed was access to the physical compounds. In response, in December 2011, Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV) launched the open access malaria box. The box contains 400 diverse compounds active against malaria, selected pragmatically from the pot of commercially available hits. Since its launch, more than 150 copies of the malaria box have been delivered to researchers in 29 countries to catalyse malaria and neglected diseases drug research. All that is asked in return is that they continue the virtuous cycle of sharing and collaboration by releasing their data into the public domain. A year and a half since the launch of the Malaria Box, we are already starting to see some exciting results. The Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative identified several chemical series with activity against trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness) and leishmaniasis (skin sores). With many groups working with the same compound set, yet on different mechanisms, pathways and even pathogens, we are learning much more about the similarities and differences between the diseases, as well as the mechanisms of action of the compounds. Following on from the success of the malaria box, there are now plans to launch a similar project, the pathogen box. This time the box will contain compounds known to be active against a range of diseases: malaria, schistosomiasis, tuberculosis and various worm infections. On a different front, in 2011, MMV launched an open source drug discovery programme using a 'crowdsourcing' model, initially working with scientists in Australia. Dr Mat Todd at the University of Sydney posts all the details of his research online in a kind of electronic lab book. As posts are made, alerts go out via social media to source expertise from the global scientific community. The team also holds regular open web conferences, which anyone can join, to discuss and contribute to the project, so it's a 'real-time' exchange. Some laboratories have taken their contribution a step further by synthesising and screening compounds. This is one of the first initiatives to experiment with open source drug discovery (OSDD). Across the Indian Ocean, we are also working closely with another key leader in this field: India's OSDD malaria programme. By consolidating research for new therapies for neglected diseases and then sharing their results and problems online, researchers from around the world can offer advice. All of this contributing to the ultimate aim of the programme – to provide affordable healthcare to patients ..."