(Image taken from here)
The manner in which the software industry was revolutionized about a decade ago by the advent of the Linux operating system and the open-source software development movement is sought to be emulated by pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline PLC in the field of coming up with new drugs and medicinal processes. In the month of May, 2010, Glaxo revealed to the public the designs behind 13,500 chemical compounds, which according to them, have the potential ability to successfully hamstring the malarial parasite.
The rationale behind Glaxo’s move, in the words of Nick Cammack, head of Glaxo’s Medicines Development Campus in Spain, was that other researchers “may look at these structures in quite a different way and see something that we don’t.” This is being perceived as one of the largest experiments yet by the pharmaceutical industry to apply techniques of open-source development to drug discovery. It is based on the premise that voluntary collaboration will result into products, ownership of which won’t rest with a single corporation.
Just like the software industry, pharmaceutical giants have often been accused of hoarding their formulas for drugs and other forms of IP, with the view that each may turn out to be a potential cash-cow in future. However, with diseases such as malaria chiefly targeting developing countries and populace experiencing stark poverty, it is highly unlikely that even if Glaxo comes up with a drug to combat the disease all on its own, it’ll turn out to be a huge commercial success for the company –which the company obviously kept it mind before launching the aforesaid experiment.
Having said that, this is not the first of Glaxo’s efforts to promote open-source drug development. In 2009, it had been instrumental in funding a non-profit organization called Tropical Disease Initiative and a non-profit project that opens compounds from Pfizer Inc. to researchers, titled Drugs for Neglected Disease Initiative.
The data revealed by Glaxo is due to be hosted by 2 government-funded websites in U.S. and Europe respectively and a third website of a Silicon Valley company called Collaborative Drug Discovery Inc., a spin-off from Eli Lilly & Co. and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Founders Fund, a venture-capital firm. CDD’s Web service combines elements of a social networking website (undoubtedly to attract the legions of Facebook-lovers) with a database modelled on Oracle. On registering on the website, graphical depictions of Glaxo’s compounds and relevant chemical and biological data will be rendered accessible. Registered users can also upload their own data to be viewed by other researchers free of charge. In case a researcher seeks to combine the data with proprietary information, CDD also offers a secure version for a fee that will allow researchers to safeguard information.
Glaxo has also assured that it won’t seek to patent any malaria drug that the aforesaid compounds may yield and if they are used to develop a drug for other types of diseases, then also the IP issues involved would be given due consideration.
While according to some people like Barry Bunin, the CEO of CDD, the work on neglected diseases is a precursor for pharmaceutical giants to eventually use the open-source techniques for developing commercial drugs, such development may be prevented by concerns such as those involving the complexities of managing IP and other uncertainties. What, for instance, is going to happen if a particular compound subsequently turns up to have the ability to treat more diseases than initially envisaged and hence to be more valuable? Example can be cited of Glaxo having discovered of drugs that inhibited growth of the malarial parasite being of a type that is also marketed to treat cancer.
Some may believe that the open-source model, while being potentially interesting, won’t really work for profit-seeking corporate bodies, but Nick Cammack refuses to rule the possibility out that open-source work will influence Glaxo more broadly in the future, considering the challenges faced by pharmaceutical giants in launching new drugs.
For a more detailed description of this action by Glaxo by the Wall Street Journal, see here.