Pharma Showing Interest in Open Systems for Drug Discovery

10/23/13Follow @wilbanks

[Editor's note: this post first appeared on the FasterCures blog.]

Bringing the ideas of “open source” into the pharmaceutical process is far from simple. It requires a careful understanding both of the realities of open source as a software development process well as the realities of therapy research, development, and regulatory approval.

The open source metaphor holds enormous power for reaching our goal of faster cures. The key is to understand when and where in the process the open source metaphor can immediately “port” over, and to understand where we need to take the ideas behind open source – distribution, peer production, low transaction costs, and political freedoms – and do some translational research of our own to bring them into local context. Because that’s the only way we’ll realize the massive potential of a transition to open systems in drug discovery.

First, let’s look  at open source in software. Software is a human construct, built in languages designed for its creation, and governed by a harmonized and powerful international copyright regime (the drawbacks of this regime are widely known and discussed elsewhere, but are out of scope for this context). Developers have spent decades embedding abstraction and modularization into software development. And the tools of software development are widely available at low or zero cost: a computer, an internet connection, and the willingness to learn to write code.

This is the foundation for what most people mean when they think about “open source” – a loose collection of individuals, connected by technology, coming together for a variety of reasons to collectively create a product that is larger than the sum of its parts, distributed through computer networks at costs far lower than traditional commercial products. These products emerge in technical frameworks that track and reward the small edits and changes that improve software over time, and allow collective governance of projects without a centralized command-and-control system.

And most importantly, these products contain within themselves political freedoms: freedom to contribute, to change, to edit, to distribute, to reuse. The freedoms are embedded in copyright licenses that pass rights on from person to person, that travel with the documents that contain the software code. It is a remarkable thing, open source. It would have sounded insane in the 1970s.

And we’ve seen open source move from software to culture. The most obvious example is Wikipedia. Despite all the obvious reasons why no one would ever trust an online dictionary edited by pseudonymous users, one that contains entries on topics no academic would deem worthy, Wikipedia not only exists but has been empirically demonstrated to be as accurate as the best traditional peer-reviewed encyclopedias (this study was disputed at the time by Encylopedia Britannica, which has ironically signaled a move to a peer production model itself).

So it’s no surprise that the vision of a loose collection of individuals coming together to discover cures, connected by technology, empowered by technology, is having its moment in the sun for drug discovery. But the discovery process is a different animal than … Next Page »

John Wilbanks is a data commons expert and advocate who has spent his career working to advance open content, open data, and open innovation systems. He is a senior fellow at FasterCures and chief commons officer at Sage Bionetworks. Follow @wilbanks

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