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Opinion: What open-source software can teach big pharma

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A new focus on early-stage collaborative medicine could revolutionise drug research

At the Diamond Light Source synchrotron in Oxford, scientists shoot electrons through rings at near light speed to produce beams ten billion times brighter than the sun. These beams are used to study everything from painting fragments to viral structures. Last year researchers at Oxford University used the synchrotron, a large machine, to work out the molecular structure of COVID-19. Instead of selling off the discovery to the highest bidder, they put the information immediately into the open domain so that scientists globally could learn how COVID-19’s proteins infect the body.

This sharing of information has been widely used by the software industry for decades. With open-source software, engineers share their source codes openly with their counterparts, who can then tinker with the codes and produce something new. Examples of open-source software products include the internet browser Mozilla Firefox and the Linux operating system. While this model has brought enormous benefits to the software industry, medicine has been slow to catch on.

Matthew Todd, chair of drug discovery at University College London, likens open-source medicine to Wikipedia. All data and results are shared instantly and openly with the wider scientific community. This sharing of information could have real advantages for medicine because drugs are extremely expensive to research and most do not survive phase-one clinical trials. Rather than waste time experimenting with a molecule that a competitor has already proved to be unsafe, scientists could learn about failures instantly from a public data bank and then carry on experimenting with something new.  Saving time and money by learning from others’ failures could lower drug prices and get new medicines to market sooner.

New beginnings

Some drug companies are beginning to experiment with open-source medicine. Pharma companies AbbVie, Bayer, and Johnson & Johnson have partnered with the Structural Genomics Consortium (SGC), a research organisation that studies less well-known areas of the human genome. The consortium is funded partly by drug companies and shares all of its findings openly with the public. Recently the SGC teamed up with the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill to have drugs ready for clinical trials when the next pandemic hits.

Other drug companies are using the open-source model to help them begin researching rare diseases or illnesses that have high clinical failure rates. The associate director of global research at a pharmaceutical company says he has been given clear guidance to contact competitors and consortiums to develop shared risk models of innovation. The advantage, he says, is that by splitting the risk, more companies will be keen to invest their limited time and resources on less lucrative medicines.

For all its advantages, open-source medicine does have its drawbacks. According to the global director of research, pharma companies are reluctant to use pure open-source models because they know they will not make millions of dollars on a new drug. He would prefer to see more businesses embrace open-source medicine for early-stage drug development and then have each one carry on with research in its own private corner. “We do know that despite not being perfect, open-source medicine does work in key early stages. But, it has yet to be proven if this model can produce new medicines entirely on its own,” he says.

The only way to prove that the model can develop new drugs is for pharma companies to learn to share more. In the last year the pharma industry has been able to show the world what science can achieve when barriers are removed and everyone works collectively towards a single goal. COVID-19 is not the first pandemic, and it will most certainly not be the last. In the years to come historians and policy makers will comb through the pharma industry’s successes and failures to see how the public and private sector can meet the challenges of the next global health crisis. By embracing open science and sharing intellectual property, drug companies can achieve results much faster when everyone pitches in to share the risks and rewards of medical discovery. As President Harry Truman once said, “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”

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