Pipettes in a lab

Open source drug research could open up medicine

9 April 2019
Universal access to medicine could come via open source drug discovery, argues lecturer Dr Alice Motion. She works to make drug discovery less secretive, so that more people can help find the pharmaceuticals the world needs.
Dr Alice Motion

Dr Alice Motion.

Open scientists, like myself, believe that we can improve access to medicines by increasing transparency in the drug discovery process. Traditionally, pharmaceutical development is veiled in secrecy, not surprising given the time and investment required to find a new medicine.

What is the problem?

On average, it takes 12 years and costs AUD $3.6 billion to bring a new drug to market and it’s a risky business. Promising drug candidates often fail in the late stages, sometimes at the final hurdle. Secrecy means that competing pharmaceutical companies could be working on the same compounds at the same time. This duplication of effort is problematic even in cases where the compounds prove to be successful, but when the drugs don’t work, it’s a terrible waste.

I’m part of the Open Source Malaria consortium (OSM) – founded by Professor Matthew Todd in 2012 – which is trying to find a new medicine for the treatment of malaria as quickly and cheaply as possible by removing secrecy and preventing duplication of effort. We have a strong motivation.

In 2017, there were 435 thousand malaria deaths globally. OSM has brought together an international team of researchers who design, synthesise and test new antimalarial candidates and publish all of their results on the internet in open lab notebooks that anyone can read. The work is done freely with the understanding that there will be no patents.

Open source drug discovery is a model particularly suited to diseases that disproportionately affect the world’s poor, where there is little to no market incentive for companies to invest in drug discovery.

What can be done?

In the open model, researchers from different universities and institutions collaborate and seek input from colleagues from the pharmaceutical industry in online forums. For example, chemists post target structures before starting to make them in the lab, allowing the research community to point out any problems or share ideas.

Another exciting thing about removing secrecy from drug discovery is that it lowers the barrier to participation. Drug discovery is no longer solely the domain of professional scientists and higher degree research students; we’ve been able to involve undergraduates and even high school students in the search for new medicines in a project called Breaking Good.

As an example, in 2014, we began a pilot project with a local high school and worked successfully with the students to make antimalarial building blocks. In 2016, we focused on something a little different: recreating the medicine Daraprim, which is essential for treatment of toxoplasmosis, a parasitic condition highly dangerous to people living with HIV or AIDS.

The price for this medicine was suddenly increased in the US from $13.50 a pill to an outrageous $750 per pill, but the students demonstrated it could be made for just a few dollars. They shared all of their experimental details online and took part in an important conversation about the ethics of access to medicine.

The Daraprim story reminded the world that a lack of access to medicine is not limited solely to people in the developing world. Many medicines are simply too expensive for patients to afford due to either astronomical costs of development or unconscionable price hikes. The low market incentive that inhibits development of medicines for the world’s poor is also a huge problem for rare diseases that don’t have large numbers of potential patients.

I believe that opening up drug discovery is a new model that could help us to find new medicines more efficiently and build trust between patients and scientists through transparency.

On My Mind is an opinion piece published in the Sydney Alumni Magazine. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the University.

Dr Alice Motion is a chemist and leturer in the Faculty of Science and the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney. You can find out more about her work at breakinggoodproject.com, which is part of the new Citizen Science research node.

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