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Can drug discovery use the open source model?

Can drug discovery use the open source model?
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First Published: Thu, Sep 20 2007. 01 12 AM IST
Updated: Thu, Sep 20 2007. 01 12 AM IST
What Linux did for the software industry, Samir Brahmachari is hoping his model for drug development will do for the pharmaceutical industry. And he has India’s apex planning body backing him.
Brahmachari, the director of the Institute of Genomic and Integrative Biology (IGIB), a government research laboratory which is part of the lab network of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, plans to break up the challenges involved in developing a drug into smaller, individual problems, put these up on a website, and invite solutions from the public—with those suggesting a solution that works winning a cash prize.
Most challenges in drug development, at least till the testing stages, are chemical, and all chemical problems deal with mathematical algorithms and formulae.
“There are two reasons why I think this will work,” said Brahmachari: “One, because we are trying to harness the creative potential of brilliant students—a Rs50,000 or Rs1 lakh prize for figuring out an algorithm to make proteins bind to a particular site on a cell is a huge incentive and within the abilities of a clever programmer. Secondly, research labs in India are filled more with technicians, as opposed to creative minds. You really don’t need to have a doctorate in pharmacy to contribute to developing a drug.”
In Brahmachari’s collective approach to drug development, a person or group of people solving one of the smaller problems does not get a patent.
If the drug development process succeeds, the formulation as well as the process of development will be available to everyone, not just those who worked on the problems. “Theoretically, everybody can have the know-how to make a drug, and no company will have the financial incentive to incrementally modify the drug and charge high prices,” added Brahmachari.
“You’re kidding me,” said the chairman of one of India’s largest pharmaceutical companies when he heard of Brahmachari’s idea. “Open source for drug discovery?” asked the executive, who did not wish to be identified. “Even if somebody solves a crucial element in the discovery of a drug, I’ll have to spend money for trials and toxicology. Once all this is done, a rival company will just steal the formulation and worse, steal one of my scientists,” he added.
Brahmachari is convinced his model will work. The process of developing a suitable website where the problems can be put up and coordinating with the problem solvers will be handled by a trust that will receive government funding. “How much, hasn’t been decided yet; however, corporates are also welcome,” he said. The Planning Commission has approved the idea in-principle, too, he added.
Brahmachari said he would also talk to established research and development labs in the country to participate in the project. “It’s not anti-corporate because the drugs that will be worked upon will involve everything from high-margin to low-margin drugs. So input costs towards R&D will be distributed,” he added. Drugs for tuberculosis and malaria will be the first that will be developed using this model.
Sujit Bhattacharya, an expert on science policy and patent issues at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, said that while he is a believer when it came to open source, he wasn’t “sure how successful this is going to be. The Human Genome project was a freely accessible database, but there have been documented cases of R&D companies actually appropriating parts of the information gleaned from it.”
Brahmachari is confident that open source is the way ahead for drug discovery in India. “What have all our drug discovery firms achieved till now? Nothing,” he said. “I believe we can be as successful as Linux or a Wikipedia.”
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First Published: Thu, Sep 20 2007. 01 12 AM IST