Harnessing the Crowd to Make Better Drugs: Merck’s Friend Nails Down $5M to Propel New Open Source Era
Biology has never really had a social-networking movement like open-source computing, where thousands of loosely-affiliated people around the world pool brainpower to make better software. If Merck’s Stephen Friend gets his way, about five years from now, he will have ushered in a new era in which biologists work together to make drugs that are better than any company can today inside its walls.
Friend, 54, is leaving his high-profile job as Merck’s senior vice president of cancer research, after having nailed down $5 million in anonymous donations to pursue this vision at a nonprofit organization getting started in Seattle called Sage, Xconomy has learned. I heard about this potentially transformative idea during a phone conversation a couple days ago with Friend and his co-founder from Merck, Eric Schadt.
Sage is built on the premise that vast networks of genes get perturbed, or thrown off-kilter, in complex diseases like cancer, diabetes, and obesity. Scientists can’t just pick one faulty gene or protein and make a magic bullet to shut it down. But what if researchers around the world capturing genomic profiles on patients could get all of their data to talk to each other through a free, open database? A researcher in Seattle looking at how all 35,000 genes in breast cancer patients are dialed on or off at a certain stage of illness might be able to make critical comparisons by stacking results up against a deeper and broader data pool that integrates clinical, genetic, and other molecular data from peers in, say, San Francisco, New Haven, CT, or anywhere else.
Besides helping scientists aim higher, this will make medicine more transparent than ever, Friend says. Physicians from around the world could look at genetic profiles from their patients, match it up with the Sage database, and then prescribe the medicine most likely to work, Friend says. The FDA could look for insight into the proper balance between the risk and benefit of a drug. Health insurers could look at drugs for certain patients that have the greatest likelihood of success, and pay for ones that work. Drug companies could use the database to weed out treatments that are bound to fail or cause side effects for patients with certain genetic profiles, potentially saving years of wasted effort and hundreds of millions of dollars.
“We see this becoming like the Google of biological science. It will be such an informative platform, you won’t be able to make decisions without it,” Schadt says. He adds: “We want this to be like the Internet. Nobody owns it.”
Some big names have signed on for the early incubating phase. Besides the full-time efforts of Friend and Schadt, the Sage board includes Nobel Laureate Lee Hartwell of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center; Paul Ramsey dean of the School of Medicine at the University of Washington; Richard Lifton, the chairman of genetics at Yale University; and Hans Wigzell, director emeritus of Sweden’s Karolinska Institute. For insight into how to apply lessons from the open-source computing world, the board has brought on John Wilbanks, the vice president of science at the San Francisco-based Creative Commons.
To get started, Merck is in the process of donating some needed equipment and software that has been used at the Rosetta Inpharmatics subsidiary in Seattle, Friend says. The Whitehouse Station, NJ-based pharmaceutical giant will also donate important genomic data that doesn’t relate to its proprietary drug discovery programs, Friend says. And, as Sage plans to build up a staff of about 30 people, it will draw partially from the remaining talent pool that worked for Friend and Schadt, since Merck announced last fall it is closing the Seattle facility and transferring some people to Boston.
Sage hopes to follow the road map of Facebook, which started on campus at Harvard University, quickly caught on there … Next Page »