Traditionally research into new medicines is secretive. In part this is because the pharmaceutical industry needs patents in order to be financially sustainable. But the secrecy is a weakness because it can lead to expensive duplication of effort and different groups of scientists not learning from each other. Open Source Malaria removes the secrecy so that the research can be carried out more efficiently and the public and patient groups can become involved in the work. In much the same way as open source software has made such great products we all use (like the Firefox web browser and the Android operating system), we think that open source malaria can produce high quality, low-cost medicines that could help a lot of people.
To date four sets of molecules have been pursued in the OSM consortium. The starting points came from big pharmaceutical companies like GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer. The OSM community then worked to improve these compounds by making them more active against the malaria parasite and by making them longer-lasting in the body. The current series, Series 4, is able to cure mice of malaria. This means that we’re close to taking a compound into clinical trials where it could be used by people. If that is successful we would have achieved something really new – we would have taken a public domain compound all the way to market where it could be made at low cost by generics manufacturers.
If we can do this then we can start asking whether we could envisage a whole new pharmaceutical industry based on open source principles. Could we use open source pharma to discover new medicines for heart disease, or Alzheimer’s? How about cancer, or medicines to fight superbugs? We won’t know until we try. It would be fantastic if you could help do that.