CSIR's Open Source Drug Discovery project comes to a dead end nine years after it was launched with great expectations
The government's Open Source Drug Discovery project comes to a dead end nine years after it was launched with much fanfare
IF OPEN source and access are the future where does India stand? The excitement generated by the European Union’s goal of having open science and open access which we wrote about in our last column (see `EU sets target for open science', Down To Earth, 16-31 July, 2017) has provoked some queries about the much hyped Open Source Drug Discovery (osdd) project launched by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (csir) in September 2008 with global participation. The idea was to discover drugs for neglected diseases like TB and leishmaniasis that had dropped off the research and development (R&D) radar of the bug pharma firms because these conditions afflicted people in poor countries and offered no lucrative returns.
The project, launched by the then csir Director General Samir K. Brahmachari, drew its inspiration from open source movements, primarily that launched by Richard Jefferson, one of the world’s leading molecular biologists. Jefferson developed a gene reporter system called gus, the technique used most widely by fellow-scientists, and later set up the pioneering non-profit research outfit Cambia which gave the world the concept of open source biotech.
osdd sought to build a global consortium of voluntary researchers in order to work around the patent regime that makes drugs expensive. Biology borrowed the concept of open source from the world of software where legends like Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds of Linux fought to keep coding open so that later developers could build on the work without being hindered by patent thickets. In biology, the Human Genome Sequencing Project picked up the baton of open source.
The transparency and distributed peer-review is the bedrock of the open source, which provides better quality and more flexibility to research enterprises, at much lower cost. With so much going for it what felled osdd? Part of the reason is hubris and part naivete. Besides, there was an over-dependence on students to do much of the crucial work. In June 2010, the project ran into a global storm when Brahmachari announced with much fanfare that it had comprehensively mapped and verified the genome of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacterium that causes TB.
csir, India’s largest research outfit, invited open scepticism over its claim it was the first to annotate the genome publicly. That was rather a stretch because several UK and US institutions had publicly made the genome much earlier, a fact that Brahmachari should have known. Even more eye-popping was osdd’s claim that it had isolated a molecule that could be developed into a TB drug. Clinical trials, Brahmachari claimed, would start within two years. As anyone familiar with drug R&D knows, this would signify a spectacular breakthrough. Sadly, it turned out to be so much hot air.
Scientists such as Jefferson pointed out that without external validation, such claims could not be taken seriously. osdd appeared to have forgotten the crucial need for peer review. While foreign scientists were circumspect, the Indian community was more scathing in its criticism. Biologist Pushpa Bhargava, who founded the prestigious Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, was quoted by Nature as saying the claim that students had reliably annotated the genome so quickly was “simply hilarious”.
Nothing much has been heard of the promising molecule much less the clinical trials and osdd seems to be plodding along with routine research that has led nowhere. One reason why it has failed to make a breakthrough is the lack of critical specialisations. One such is medicinal chemistry. Even more worrying is the lack of a collaborative environment among the different specialisations. Some scientists say osdd will succeed only if it has access to pharma firms’ databases and not to open access databases. But is such cooperation possible?