Can open-source R&D reinvigorate drug research - Nature

09 Sep
Published by gtaylor


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general open research

Bernard Munos, from Eli Lilly, wrote a very thorough article on open and collaborative research for neglected diseases and it was just published at Nature: Can open-source R&D reinvigorate drug research. What I particularly like about the article are the details he provides in describing how he thinks pharmaceutical companies can and should participate in the process.

Let's face it; we're in uncharted territory. We don't really KNOW how it's going to work. We're in the midst of a big evolving experimental process.

My vision for how it will work tends to be a bit more grass roots, less centralized group driving the process. Collaborative process tools like a Gene Wiki will enable dedicated experts to suggest work for less involved volunteers to contribute. People will collaborate with the people they trust and trust must be earned.

The nice thing is that I firmly believe that both the centralized group idea of Bernard's vision and my grass roots vision can co-exist peacefully and occasionally collaborate together. Again, it will be a matter of trust. Over time, the centralized group may win over the grass roots contributors and bring them into the fold. Again, it's all a matter of trust...



MatTodd's picture

Interesting article, and what makes it interesting to me is the heavy involvement Munos sees for Pharma - i.e. he perceives a clear incentive for them to do so, that it is in their interests to tap into a new creative pool.

The model presented is a mixture of research techniques, from open source through PPP to Pharma. I tend to think that from these contributions, some equilibrium may emerge, and that whatever will be will be. It's clear that open source components of global biomedical research projects are, and will continue to be, increasingly important to that equation. From the point of view of the chemistry involved in biomedical research, an open source model for the discovery of efficient, inexpensive synthetic routes is very powerful, because a wide pool of relevant and intelligent expertise can be accessed. It's always going to be important to have pharma/process chemists as part of that discussion, and I hope this article helps that to happen.

gtaylor's picture

I completely agree that from this process an equilibrium will emerge. Here's an old post of mine discussing this: Embrace the chaos!.

The question of trust has been asked by a few behind the scenes. This experiment won't work at all unless people are willing to work with others they've never met. I just posted a poll on this and will leave it open for voting and comments by guests too. I'd like to see input on this topic.

marcius's picture

Bernard's article is a very thorough account of open-source research applied to the discovery and development of new drugs. I actually liked very much the fact that he also emphasized on the need for a proper web interface that acts as a catalytic and energetic interactive tool for the researchers. In fact, he outlined what a place like TSL ought to be or became.

What I liked most is the wording ecology”. He also empathizes that big Pharma should provide the needed leadership to make open-source research a success story. This enterprise (namely open-source research) ought to be an organism of organisms!

I though that some open questions in his manuscript could be discussed in this forum:

  • Biology is increasingly becoming an information-oriented science”. I believe that is true. However, is it good for open-source research to apply concepts and strategies that were thought for real information-oriented science?
  • Can a place such as TSL become the SourceForge for research?
  • Should TSL start talking to doctors, who are in the field collecting data and doing some sort of initial open-source experiments? they could use the web to post and share their findings.
  • Open-source researrch will be better by using weak links” or strong links”? This is very interesting and we shall have an idea of what is needed since the development of TSL and tools may be impacted by it.
  • Can TSL host and farm new projects/ideas? Do we have the tools for such a thing?
    - An open-source initiative really needs to protect inventions? If so, how? In my opinion, patenting may not be the solution in this new framework.
  • Are we going to get Pharma interested in leading open projects? How?
gtaylor's picture

Source Forge Thoughts 

My vision, is that TSL is similar to a Source Forge for open research projects. Or as you said, organism of organisms. I want multiple partnerships working within our site transparently and occasionally cross-polinating ideas. Sometimes pharma may participate or lead an effort sometimes not.

In other words, we shouldn't drive what research projects are conducted. However we will drive projects, with the scientists, to evolve the site features that help the scientists to connect and work together online.  

Our Aim is to Connect The Dots 

Our approach is different than other attempts at this e.g. Bioforge, Cambia and OpenWetWare. OpenWetWare is arguably the most successful attempt as they have the fastest growing user base with the most consistent posts. However, in my opinion, it is SO open, it's not much different than providing a web publishing service for scientists. Don't get me wrong, it's very useful and I encourage TSL users to use it for general lab organizational notes and publications. But our aim is to provide the features that CONNECT the dots.

The connection dimensions we have so far:

  • Disease of study, via our research communities and profiles
  • Science Domain, via our profiles

And once we get our Gene Wiki feature funded, we will begin to connect the dots within a scientific research process for gene target identification. I think this tool in particular can help to involve the "weak links" in the process of developing therapies.

Fostering Translational Science 

Your question about doctors/the field getting involved - absolutely I see that as a goal. I want all disciplines of science/medicine who could help direct the development of therapies to be involved. Over time, we will add features that help them do their job and thus entice them to participate. At this point I doubt we have sufficient features to entice them to be here. One step at a time...