Open­ing up malaria re­search

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

In re­cent years, tremen­dous progress has been made in the bat­tle against malaria. Ac­cord­ing to the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion, the num­ber of deaths from the dis­ease has fallen by a stag­ger­ing 60% since 2000 – the re­sult of im­proved ac­cess to di­ag­nos­tic test­ing and treat­ment.

To be sure, there is still con­sid­er­able work to be done, but the downward trend in new in­fec­tions and deaths un­der­scores the power of col­lab­o­ra­tion among govern­ments (in malaria en­demic and non-en­demic coun­tries alike), be­tween com­mer­cial and non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tions, and be­tween aca­demic science and medicine. With­out such part­ner­ships, ad­vances in fight­ing this deadly dis­ease would not have been pos­si­ble. Along­side co­or­di­nated action on the ground, in­creas­ing open­ness and col­lab­o­ra­tion among sci­en­tists re­search­ing and de­vel­op­ing a new generation of medicines and vac­cines is paving the way for fur­ther progress.

There is a grow­ing recog­ni­tion within the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity that no sin­gle or­ga­ni­za­tion or group has the know-how or re­sources to tackle malaria alone. As with many other dis­eases af­flict­ing the de­vel­op­ing world, the science is hugely com­plex, and the com­mer­cial op­por­tu­nity is lim­ited. Re­vers­ing the tide on malaria re­quires us to pool re­sources and com­bine the di­verse ex­pe­ri­ence and ex­per­tise of sci­en­tists from dif­fer­ent back­grounds and spe­cial­ties.

For­tu­nately, sci­en­tists are al­ready tak­ing note, and the re­sult is the emer­gence and spread of a dis­rup­tive new ap­proach to re­search and de­vel­op­ment. Called “open in­no­va­tion,” it turns the tra­di­tional R&D model on its head and re­moves bar­ri­ers to col­lab­o­ra­tion. Based on the recog­ni­tion that the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts, open in­no­va­tion is a col­le­gial way of work­ing, in which shar­ing is ev­ery­thing.

This open­ness is well il­lus­trated by un­prece­dented lev­els of data shar­ing. In 2010, GSK, the Ge­nomics In­sti­tute of the No­var­tis Re­search Foun­da­tion, and the St. Jude Chil­dren’s Re­search Hospi­tal in Mem­phis, Ten­nessee, re­leased into the public do­main the de­tails of more than 20,000 com­pounds that are ac­tive against the malaria par­a­site – 13,500 of which came from GSK’s pro­pri­etary com­pound li­brary. This was a landmark move, one in­tended to gal­vanise the in­ter­na­tional re­search com­mu­nity.

Medicines for Malaria Ven­ture (MMV), a non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion, took things a step fur­ther. Through the “open ac­cess malaria box,” MMV pro­vides phys­i­cal ac­cess to a di­verse se­lec­tion of 400 com­mer­cially avail­able com­pounds. Ac­cess is free for sci­en­tists around the world, as long as they agree to make the re­sults of their re­search public. To date, the malaria box has been shared with more than 250 re­search groups in 30 coun­tries around the world, and has led to the ini­ti­a­tion of sev­eral new drug- dis­cov­ery pro­grammes across a range of ne­glected dis­eases.

In ad­di­tion to fa­cil­i­tat­ing the shar­ing of tools and in­sights, open re­search cre­ates frame­works for sci­en­tists from dif­fer­ent in­sti­tu­tions and back­grounds to work to­gether (both phys­i­cally and re­motely), draw on each other’s strengths, and exchange know-how.

One ex­am­ple of this type of col­lab­o­ra­tion is the world’s first “open lab” for re­search into dis­eases of the de­vel­op­ing world, es­tab­lished in 2010 at GSK’s re­search site in Tres Can­tos, Spain. The lab op­er­ates with the sup­port and ad­vice of a broad range of ac­tors, in­clud­ing GSK, the Well­come Trust, the Euro­pean Union, and MMV, as well as var­i­ous other prod­uct-de­vel­op­ment part­ner­ships and aca­demic cen­tres. It en­ables re­searchers from lead­ing in­sti­tu­tions world­wide to work along­side in­dus­try sci­en­tists in a dy­namic and col­lab­o­ra­tive en­vi­ron­ment, with the aim of trans­form­ing early re­search ideas into drug-dis­cov­ery pro­grams.

With 60 projects com­pleted since its es­tab­lish­ment, this ini­tia­tive has gained wide recog­ni­tion as an in­cu­ba­tor for new ideas and a valu­able model for R&D into treat­ments for other ma­jor health chal­lenges. Other in­tensely col­lab­o­ra­tive R&D ini­tia­tives are also bear­ing fruit. Three po­ten­tial new treat­ments for malaria be­ing de­vel­oped by GSK (two in part­ner­ship with MMV) are pro­gress­ing to clin­i­cal tri­als.

An­other po­ten­tial new drug be­ing de­vel­oped through a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween GSK and MMV, for vi­vax malaria, is fur­ther along in the de­vel­op­ment process, hav­ing en­tered the fi­nal stages of clin­i­cal tri­als. If suc­cess­ful, it will be the first treat­ment for re­laps­ing malaria ap­proved in more than 60 years.

More­over, last year, reg­u­la­tors gave the green light to GSK’s malaria vac­cine. A world first, it is the cul­mi­na­tion of three decades of re­search and un­prece­dented lev­els of col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween GSK, the PATH Malaria Vac­cine Ini­tia­tive, and prom­i­nent African re­search cen­tres.

But while we have good rea­son to be en­cour­aged by re­cent progress, we must not be­come com­pla­cent in our ef­forts to de­feat malaria. Each pos­i­tive statis­tic is bal­anced by the stark re­al­ity that there are still around 200 mil­lion cases of malaria each year, killing nearly 500,000 peo­ple, the vast ma­jor­ity of whom are chil­dren un­der the age of five.

With the es­tab­lish­ment of a strong, col­lab­o­ra­tive re­search com­mu­nity and the in­creas­ingly free flow of knowl­edge, we are now bet­ter placed than ever to step up our ef­forts, and to en­cour­age oth­ers to fol­low suit. In an area where com­mer­cial gains are lim­ited, but the po­ten­tial for vastly im­prov­ing the health and economies of en­tire coun­tries is enor­mous, sci­en­tists must con­tinue to break down si­los and col­lab­o­rate for the global good.

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