PATENTLY ABSURD Latha Jishnu / New Delhi June 25, 2008, 0:26 IST It was unexpected and went almost unnoticed. Last Friday, pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), the world's second largest drug maker, announced in Philadelphia that it was donating an important slice of its research on cancer cells to the cancer research community to boost the collaborative battle against this disease. Only a couple of specialty wire services in the US picked up this news; the mainstream press ignored what appears to be a marked — and dramatic shift — in the approach to drug discovery. What we are seeing is the first big bang contribution to open source drug discovery (OSDD), an initiative to rope in researchers, universities and companies to make drug breakthroughs less expensive and time-consuming. Big pharma claims that it costs as much $1 billion to bring a new molecule to the market and 8-12 years to develop it. That's something that few companies can afford any more. For developing countries, too, OSDD may prove to be the route of the future. With few of the drug giants interested in investing in R&D pertaining to diseases that are common in poor countries, countries and organisations like the WHO are banking on collaborative research bring about the much-needed cures. In India, we have our own OSDD champion in Samir Bramachari, director-general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) who has an innovative plan to find cures for diseases like tuberculosis which are bigger killers than cancer in this country. Patents, believes the CSIR chief, although necessary in some cases only go to fatten the pockets of lawyers, and his idea is to have an incentive-based licensing plan to kick off OSDD. GSK's move will certainly bolster such hopes even though the focus areas are vastly different. What GSK has done is to release the genomic profiling data for over 300 sets of cancer cell lines to the National Cancer Institute's bioinformatics grid, known as caBIG™. This is a website that collects data along the entire research pathway and enables researchers to share and analyse an extraordinary amount of information, thus helping to cut down costs and time on research. The significance of the GSK data is that it's derived from a wide variety of tumours, including breast, prostate, lung and ovarian cancers. This is a godsend for small research units and academic institutions which will have access to this information without incurring what the company describes as "the prohibitive cost and time involved in identifying and cataloguing each cell line". The hope is that somewhere, sometime, some brilliant researcher or two will make a stunning breakthrough sifting through this data. The critical component in OSDD is, of course, the information network that supports it. Mandated on the three principal goals of open development, open access and open source, the caBIG™ informatics grid draws its inspiration from the open source software movement which has spawned the most creative collaborative research in modern times. caBIG™, already a huge repository of genetic information, is a network that will allow all constituencies in the cancer community — from researchers and physicians to patients — to share information that is aimed at accelerating the discovery of new approaches for the detection, diagnosis, treatment and prevention of cancer. And the best part is that it has wider applications beyond cancer. Anyone can participate in caBIG™ and it's free. That would explain why 900 individuals are part of this community which includes over 50 cancer centres apart from 30 other research institutions, along with industry and not-for-profit organisations. Will the GSK initiative have a ripple effect and act as a catalyst to OSDD? There is, of course, the cynical view that it makes sense for companies like GSK to free their data; the more the number of people working on it, the higher the chances there will be a breakthrough. It's also more economical for pharma companies to let research outfits and academics to do the groundbreaking work and then pick up from the point when the researchers need funding for further development. It's also an indisputable fact that the new drugs pipeline is getting narrower for most of big pharma which is on a huge cost-cutting exercise. Just a fortnight ago, GSK, which is heavily focused on cancer therapeutics, said it was sacking 350 of its research staff as part of an ongoing restructuring plan aimed at boosting productivity. More job cuts and shutdown of some sites are expected to pare costs by a whopping $1.4 billion. Economics could be a reason for GSK's gift to the research community but there is no gainsaying that it's quite an endorsement for OSDD. As the old saw goes, let's not look at gift horse in the mouth, specially when the mount, to all appearances, is as splendid as this one.