If a piece of software or computer program is “open source,” that means that anybody can access the program’s code, make updates, and share it with others. Firefox is a well-known program that’s open source.
Nobody “owns” the program, and maintenance of these programs, which are usually free to consumers, is handled by a community of enthusiasts around the world.
Scientists, inspired by this hive-minded work style, have begun imitating the approach in their own research. Networked together by technology, researchers from around the world combine their efforts in pursuit of a common goal, as in the Human Genome Project and the Tropical Disease Initiative.
The Open Source Drug Discovery Foundation, a project spearheaded by India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, is using this same approach to combat neglected diseases including malaria, leishmaniasis, and target number one―tuberculosis― which affect millions around the world.
The leaders of OSDD say that finding relief for people suffering from such diseases is up to them, because drug companies won’t put big money into this kind of research, since it would be difficult to recoup their investment.
So, how does it work? Members of the project donate their time and contribute their findings online. They hold discussions and pose questions. They share ideas. And it’s not just a group of established scientists—students are participating in the process as well. And everyone is focusing on a different aspect of the research: some are analyzing the genome of the bacteria that causes TB, while others might be researching existing patents for TB medicines.
Members are given credit for their contributions and are free to use the information in their own works and writings.
Project Director Zakir Thomas says that solving problems as a united group is “immensely motivational.” The fight against tuberculosis is a personal fight for many of the participants from India, where tuberculosis is a huge problem.
But, not everyone is sold on the project’s open source approach. Problems have appeared. How will the government provide the enormous amounts of money required to produce a drug and deliver it to the people who need it? Why would a company sponsor a clinical trial for a drug to which they would not have the rights? Many of the drug manufacturing companies in India specialize in producing generic drugs, not creating new ones.
Time will tell if India’s government will come through with the funding and a company will sponsor the clinical trials. If this process succeeds, it could fundamentally alter how scientists in the rest of the world research neglected diseases. And, who knows, perhaps all diseases.
Let’s hope it catches on.