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A Joint Front

"An open source drug discovery programme allows capabilities to be linked and used, at negligible cost. India has already taken a step in this direction," says Samir K Brahmachari, Founder Director, CSIR-IGIB, and Former Director General, CSIR.
Samir K Brahmachari   New Delhi     Print Edition: January 13, 2019
A Joint Front

Why do we continue to have an Ola after Uber or a Flipkart after Amazon, and not the other way? One possible answer could be that we are comfortable with status quo and hence, despite being smart, not keen to innovate.

Another probable reason could be that even if we are keen, our present ecosystem does not encourage disruptive risk-taking projects. As someone who has helped design India's own disruptive programme in innovation - an open source drug discovery programme (OSDD) - I would believe that disruptive innovations do happen in the country, albeit facing resistance. A decade after OSDD was launched to tackle the problems posed by diseases that are endemic to developing countries like India - with tuberculosis (TB) being its first disease target - the programme has been subsumed into the India TB Research and Development Consortium project.

The novel method of asset utilisation and capacity building at a negligible cost, which is what OSDD is all about, can be a powerful strategy in dealing with other neglected diseases too. In fact, other countries are following India's footsteps, and it is high time we take a fresh look at the economic and scientific benefits OSDD offers (read more in Current Science, 25 November 2018).

In his recent book We Do Things Differently, futurologist Mark Stevenson devotes an entire chapter to the OSDD project for discovering novel drug targets and potential new TB drug therapy by spending $12 million or 0.5 per cent of $2.6 billion which is what the pharmaceutical industry usually spends to develop a new drug. The scientific benefits that OSDD brings through crowd sourcing and asset optimisation only adds to its value.

When we envisioned this project, crowd sourcing to solve scientific problems was virtually unknown in the sector. Apart from crowd sourcing, the OSDD programme created a virtual laboratory space. It facilitated the creation of an open network between national laboratories, government agencies, research enterprises, scientists and students globally. We brought together 10 Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) laboratories, 14 industry partners and over 50 universities and colleges from India and several individuals and laboratories abroad. The computational and laboratory facilities were repurposed to host and train. For the first time, existing infrastructure like C-DAC Garuda - the country's grid computing initiative that connects 45 institutes and computer centres in 17 cities - provided its supercomputing facility to college and university students. We collaborated through an indigenously developed online portal (Sysborg 2.0) supported by N.R. Narayana Murthy of Infosys and offline laboratory work with open-notebook. Over 9,000 participants from nearly 130 countries got registered with OSDD, majority from India.

OSDD volunteers undertook the mammoth task of re-annotating the genome of Mycobacterium tuberculosis (M.tb) by reading over 45,000 scientific papers in just four months. Utilising the information on the functional annotations of the M.tb genome, OSDD proposed a novel concept of metabolic persister genes as a potential combination of drug targets for existing antibiotics. Further, systems level mapping of the metabolic complexity in M.tb revealed possibilities of trying a combination of existing medicines as a new therapy.

Reaching Far and Wide

The public financing of R&D costs allowed OSDD to work with Contract Research Organisations, thereby reducing developmental cost at close-to-marginal cost and potentially creating higher affordability of drugs. The OSDD thus carved out a niche in public private partnerships.

It has also influenced India's intellectual property policy. The National Intellectual Property Rights Policy (2016) states that India will continue to utilise the legislative space and flexibilities in international treaties to encourage R&D, including open source-based research for new inventions for prevention, diagnosis and treatment of diseases, especially those that are life threatening and those that have high incidence in India. The informal adoption of open access policy aims at reliability and transparency of public funds and their utilisation in public funded research.

Today, we have an Open Source Pharma Foundation in which Ratan Tata and the Board of Tata Trusts have committed $3 million. It aims to promote crowd sourced and computer-driven drug discovery, IT-enabled clinical trials with open data and crowd sourcing (including a possible results-based financing mechanism to fund them) and generics manufacture.

The OSDD model has inspired other drug discovery programmes. The just concluded Paris Open Source Summit is an example. The Center for Research and Interdisciplinarity, University of Paris, a participant of OSDD, is now a full-fledged centre built on open research, open innovation, open education and open space. In fact, they are hosting the next Open Source Pharma Foundation meet in March 2019.

Bill Gates, who built his empire on proprietary software, tweeted that open innovation is the way forward for drug discovery in neglected diseases. The next decade will be the age of massive digital transformations in healthcare, and the pharmaceutical industry will feel the need to embrace the open source ideology. Various open source movements, such as in software and education, have showcased that billion-dollar industries can be built and sustained through the open source model. The same would apply to the pharmaceutical industry too.

India has taken the first step towards the open source drug discovery movement. Given enough encouragement, the idea will prove to be disruptive enough to help the world meet unmet medical needs.

The writer is Founder Director, CSIR-IGIB, and Former Director General, CSIR

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