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Open source drug discovery

By Alius Noreika

Using Wikipedia, Firefox and Linux as models for research collaboration, Matthew Todd’s team employs open source methods to create drugs for chronic illnesses. Dr Todd talks about the success of open source drug discovery, the ARC’s new open access policy and the future of the traditional research model.

“The way that we do research nowadays is a little inefficient because we don’t share enough,” said Dr Matthew Todd, senior lecturer at the School of Chemistry and ‘Captain’ of the Todd Lab.

“By working in secret you could be duplicating other people’s work or failing to get input from other experts around the world.

“I was looking at open source software and thinking we should be using that model to do science in a brutally open collaboration that could include anybody.

“We successfully achieved this in an ARC Linkage project with the World Health Organisation. We solved a problem to do with making an important drug faster, because everything we did was openly available online.”

That drug was Praziquantel, which is used to treat 100 million people with a parasitic infection, Schistosomiasis, which affects nearly half a billion people in four continents.

“The project was successful and went quickly because experts we didn’t know in the field of science contributed openly on the website.”

These people, often from companies in the pharmaceutical industry, provided strategic advice and ran experiments free of charge.

Open science, Todd said, has the benefit of showing other researchers your complete methodology, where you made mistakes and, because of the massive amount of oversight of the project, where the project can go next.

“In traditional research practices you don’t share what your lab is doing: you would do work in the lab and then you would distil out a certain amount of the stuff you have done and then publish that as a paper in a peer reviewed journal.”

“The crucial distinction (of open models) is that you’re not telling people what you’ve done, you’re telling people what you’re going to do in the future.”

“We publish but we don’t keep secrets. It’s going to take a while for that model to be seen as attractive.”

Sharing is a fundamental theme in Todd’s approach to science, not just with collaborators but with the general public too.

The ARC’s efforts to get tax payer funded research to the public, with the Open Access Policy, is a good first step, he said.

“Journal publishers still have a say over whether we’re allowed to comply. And that’s a big issue, because most of them say we’re not.

“But it’s also quite bold in the sense that the ARC has gone with the ‘Green Open Access‘ model –University repositories host the research – and the cost is devolved to universities.

“I think in the coming years it will become a bigger and stronger policy but it’s important to start somewhere.”

With the support of a new ARC Linkage grant Todd aims to use open science to create another drug to treat the only disease more devastating and pervasive than schistosomiasis: malaria.

Because of the positive experience with the Praziquantel drug discovery Todd acknowledges he is cynical about the traditional model of research practice.

“There are pressures on us, as academics, to publish in journals with high impact factors and to publish regularly, and that drive us to compete in a way where we are not aware of what our competitors are doing.

“We also usually focus on the positive and not the negative, which can interfere with the production of robust scientific models as a community.

“One defence of the secretive model is intellectual property. But if you’re not worried about IP it’s quite difficult to justify the old model.”

“I want a drug to be found for malaria as quickly as possible and I don’t really care who does that. The work is important, not who does it.”

Recently, a commercial organisation sought permission to use Todd’s Praziquantel synthesis.

“I said ‘of course you can, it’s open source’ and they’ve gone away and done something which could have a big impact.

“And that, to me, is just fantastic. I don’t need any cut of that work. It’s great to know that what the open source team has done is useful to someone down the line, perhaps for the generation of a profit.

“It’s like when you edit a Wikipedia article, you don’t do it because you want money.

“You do it because you want to do good work, and for that to be of the widest possible use to humanity.”

Source: University of Sydney

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