Pure hype

CSIR's Open Source Drug Discovery project comes to a dead end nine years af­ter it was launched with great ex­pec­ta­tions

Down to Earth - - CONTENTS -

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?

TARIQUE AZIZ / CSE

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