This post is provided by Suela Simoni, Student Assistant at Innsbruck University

While the concept of “open source” emerged as a radically open and transparent way of developing software, it is increasingly applied in other contexts as well. In pharmaceutical open source projects, for example, anyone can contribute at any time to the project, methods and data are in the public domain, and data is released as soon as it is acquired. However, compared to the software industry, open source approaches struggle to take ground in the pharma industry. As of December 2021 there has not been a single molecule worldwide, which has been discovered, developed, and brought to market completely open source. There are a few examples of patent-free molecules that have been going through clinical trials: one is the Praziquantel and the second one is the Fexinidazole. Since only a part of the process has been done openly in these cases, they cannot be considered to be completely ‘open source’. Using the example of the initiative “Open Source Malaria” and outlining the challenges they face, I will discuss why developing drugs and vaccines based on open source principles represents a difficult endeavor.

“Open Source Malaria” (OSM) is an example of a pharmaceutical open source initiative. It was founded in 2011 by Matthew Todd at the University of Sydney with the support of the Medicines for Malaria Venture and the Australian Government. The project’s goal is to find a cure for malaria. The composition of the group is constantly changing, because contributors are free to join and leave whenever they like. There is no single lab, or place, which serves as the center for the whole project. An online platform is where all contributions come together. The most active contributors and the latest tweets are shown at the landing page of OSM. The aim of OSM is to discover a new compound for the treatment of malaria, while applying thesix principles of open source research

  1. All data are open and all ideas are shared. 
  2. Anyone can take part at any level of the project. 
  3. There will be no patents.
  4. Suggestions are the best form of criticism. 
  5. Public discussion is much more valuable than private email. 
  6. The project is bigger than, and is not owned by, any given lab. The aim is to find a good drug for malaria, by whatever means, as quickly as possible. 

In this video Todd explains the six principles in more detail:

These principles of open source research should help to avoid the duplication and competition of labs doing the same research by sharing data in real-time.  In his doctoral thesis about OSM, Tse states another advantage: “By working on a drug discovery project in this manner, the secrecy that is traditionally associated with drug discovery is intentionally circumvented.”

Two months ago, I had the opportunity to conduct an interview with the founder of OSM, Matthew Todd. In this interview, Todd explained the four biggest challenges OSM faces. The first issue is related to the information sharing behavior of individual contributors. Todd states in his interview: “People still prefer to send messages to one or two people, rather than posting publicly. So people are still hesitant about having discussions in public.” Thus, hesitancy about having discussions in public hinders the transparency of open source processes and clearly jeopardizes the fifth principle of open source research: it allows only a few contributors to be informed and enabled to participate in discussing a certain issue. However, keeping the research process transparent and encouraging public discussions would help to recruit new contributors. This brings us to the second challenge: attracting new contributors. Through keeping the research process transparent, new and existing contributors can easily get to know the status quo of the project, which makes it easier to join the project. This challenge is further hampered by, third, the contributors’ limited time resources that are usually not invested into improving the initiative’s web presence. Even in a globalized and digitized world, OSM’s main way to attract new scientists is through mouth-to-mouth propaganda. 

According to Todd, the fourth challenge for OSM is to get monetary grants: “[we need the grants] to get that work going, because without something happening in the lab, […] there’s no momentum.” Monetary grants allow to pay for personnel, cover the costs of shipping, experiments, and eventual future clinical trials. Todd further explains that the most successful and active period in OSM, for example, was when two post-doctoral researchers were working for the project. Consequently, many others, including contributors from private companies, participated in the project as well. Todd concludes: “Sure, it needs money, that’s all. Doesn’t really matter where it comes from, you need money, because it’s experimental lab science. You need to pay people and to buy supplies. So there’s no way around that.” Therefore, OSM is trying to find alternative ways to fund the project, for example, to use “a more private sector model, like a company in which you can sell shares”.

In sum, Open Source Malaria, as other open source initiatives in pharma, face many challenges: keeping the research process transparent, attracting new contributors, limited time resources of the contributors, and acquiring monetary grants. Interestingly, some of these challenges, like attracting new contributors through improving the web presence and finding monetary grants, do not need contributors with specific expertise in the biotech- and pharmaceutical field, but could be solved by contributors outside this field of expertise. Accordingly, the most surprising finding from my short analysis is that open source drug development might not fail due to the lack of pharma specialists but because of the shortage of contributors from fields outside the labs. Therefore, it could be advantageous for OSM, if they would focus on attracting more people from other fields of expertise, as well, even though this will lead to a more heterogeneous group of contributors.