New Delhi: Software giant Infosys Technologies Ltd is partnering the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) for its open source drug discovery project (OSDD). The project, launched last year, is a novel attempt at fashioning an efficient way to look for tuberculosis (TB) drugs.
A key part of OSDD is to develop a gene map for mycobacterium tuberculosis (MTB), the bug responsible for the infectious disease. The gene map, which will be akin to “Google Earth”, as described by the scientists involved, will be Web-based. Infosys will help with the software aspects in making such a map.
A spokesperson for Infosys declined to comment for this story, citing confidentiality agreements with CSIR.
Vinod Scaria, a key CSIR scientist involved with OSDD, said a team of programmers at Infosys was working on the project.
The current drug discovery process, in which scientists develop molecules to activate or inactivate proteins key to an infection, is inefficient, say experts.
Most molecules that promise success in animal studies and theoretical calculations turn out to be unworkable due to surprise side effects or ineffectiveness among certain populations. Millions of dollars are wasted as drug companies usually discover these shortcomings during the clinical trial stages.
“There aren’t enough, good toxicology models available to judge the accuracy of a drug in the initial stages. So for every successful drug there are several that have failed and that’s what pushes up the cost of drugs,” said Chandrasekhar Nair, founder director, Bigtec Pvt. Ltd, a Bangalore-based firm that makes diagnostic devices.
“One reason this happens is because most available literature detailing how proteins interact with each other, are scattered across journals. Currently a key focus area is about integrating such information,” said Zakir Thomas, technical head, OSDD.
Genes, that are often building blocks of a protein, are key to identifying new drug targets. In a sort of reversal of the current drug discovery process, OSDD is premised on systematically arranging all information available on every one of the MTB’s genes, and making them publicly accessible, in an easily searchable format on the Web. This, it is hoped will greatly increase the chances of interested researchers at finding better drug targets, quicker and cheaper, say scientists involved.
“You can make several kinds of maps for a city—by restaurants, by schools etc. The software challenge lies in stitching these maps together and being able to retrieve the information you want by simple questions. Essentially a Web 3.0 application. That’s where Infosys is helping us,” said Thomas. He added that Infosys wasn’t charging for the service.
Web 3.0 is said to be the next level of the World Wide Web, with computer networks becoming more intuitive and allowing surfers to cull information from them quicker and easier than today.
The need to find better drugs is urgent. With an estimated 3.8 million cases recorded in 2008, India ranks highest in the list of tuberculosis-afflicted countries worldwide, according to figures from the health ministry.
Tuberculosis, which infects about one-third of the world’s population, killed about 1.6 million in 2007, according to the latest estimates.
Combined with HIV, TB is harder to control and reining in the infection has become harder as several drug-resistant strains have been reported in every country.
Because tuberculosis is largely found in poor, developing countries, funds supporting research into vaccines and drugs have been limited.
Unlike 70,000 odd genes that make up the human genome, MTB consists of 4,000 genes.
“Lack of research interest means only about 1,000 of these have been annotated (their functions completely documented) and this in spite of the genome being sequenced a decade back,” said Scaria, a scientist at the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, a CSIR lab. “By the middle of next year, we’re aiming to get the MTB at least as well-annotated as the human genome,” he added.
Preparing detailed genome maps is not new. Labs across the world have prepared several maps of a variety of organisms, from E. coli to the human genome. Most of these employed hired help to prepare the genome, which is where OSDD diverges.
“As of now we are reaching out to universities and professors. We have about 300 senior faculty, who will in turn engage students to work under them. It could be a great summer project work for several students,” said Thomas.
The OSDD approach could eventually drive down costs, but not anytime soon, say experts.
“Right now, drug companies are working on improving their toxicology process. But when a great deal more is known about genes and their functions in an organism, it would begin showing benefits,” added Nair.