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GSK's big bang on open drug discovery
Latha Jishnu | June 25, 2008
It was unexpected and went almost unnoticed. Last Friday, pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline [Get Quote], the world's second largest drug maker, announced in Philadelphia that it was donating an important slice of its research on cancer cells to the cancer research community to boost the collaborative battle against this disease.
What we are seeing is the first big bang contribution to open source drug discovery, an initiative to rope in researchers, universities and companies to make drug breakthroughs less expensive and time-consuming. Big pharma claims that it costs as much $1 billion to bring a new molecule to the market and 8-12 years to develop it.
In India, we have our own OSDD champion in Samir Bramachari, director-general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research who has an innovative plan to find cures for diseases like tuberculosis which are bigger killers than cancer in this country.
GSK's [Get Quote] move will certainly bolster such hopes even though the focus areas are vastly different. What GSK has done is to release the genomic profiling data for over 300 sets of cancer cell lines to the National Cancer Institute's bioinformatics grid, known as caBIG�.
The critical component in OSDD is, of course, the information network that supports it. Mandated on the three principal goals of open development, open access and open source, the caBIG� informatics grid draws its inspiration from the open source software movement which has spawned the most creative collaborative research in modern times.
Anyone can participate in caBIG� and it's free. That would explain why 900 individuals are part of this community which includes over 50 cancer centres apart from 30 other research institutions, along with industry and not-for-profit organisations.
Will the GSK initiative have a ripple effect and act as a catalyst to OSDD? There is, of course, the cynical view that it makes sense for companies like GSK to free their data; the more the number of people working on it, the higher the chances there will be a breakthrough.
It's also an indisputable fact that the new drugs pipeline is getting narrower for most of big pharma which is on a huge cost-cutting exercise. Just a fortnight ago, GSK, which is heavily focused on cancer therapeutics, said it was sacking 350 of its research staff as part of an ongoing restructuring plan aimed at boosting productivity.
Economics could be a reason for GSK's gift to the research community but there is no gainsaying that it's quite an endorsement for OSDD. As the old saw goes, let's not look at gift horse in the mouth, specially when the mount, to all appearances, is as splendid as this one.