Pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) will release 13,500 malaria drug candidates into the public domain as part of its 'open innovation' agenda, it announced yesterday (20 January).
Chief executive Andrew Witty outlined the company's strategy for increasing its intellectual property flexibility and altering its business model to tackle neglected tropical diseases.
"We're trying to identify a more pluralistic approach to how we might solve very difficult problems," he said.
"We need to be much more ... open minded and be prepared to try new things," Witty told a meeting at the New York Academy of Sciences, United States.
Under the plans any researcher or company will have access to the chemical structures of and associated data about more than 13,500 compounds shown to have activity against Plasmodium falciparum, the most dangerous malaria parasite. They would be free to use this information provided they were working towards tackling malaria in least developed countries.
Five GSK scientists screened their two-million-compound library by hand to find the shortlist.
The company will also create an 'open lab' at its neglected diseases research and development (R&D) facility in Spain. There, up to 60 researchers will be able to use GSK infrastructure and expertise to carry out their own neglected disease research projects, with the company providing a total of US$8 million in seed funding.
Ian Boulton of TropMed Pharma Consulting, which works with the pharmaceutical industry on expanding neglected diseases R&D, described the open lab initiative as "groundbreaking" and hoped other companies active in the malaria field, such as Novartis and Sanofi Aventis, would follow suit.
But he said: "Drug discovery is a long process and both the organisations involved and GSK need to have worked out how the projects can be carried forward once their time in the 'open lab' is over".
"The malaria community needs to develop a system to use this data in an intelligent manner. It would be a shame if there was no coordination or information sharing on who will be working on what classes of compounds," he added.
Mohga Kamal-Yanni, a senior health policy adviser at Oxfam, said: "This action is going beyond their own R&D decisions to encourage others. They have gone further than opening libraries, by actually doing the screening themselves."
Witty said that GSK is committed to continuing malaria R&D. "We have five or six malaria compounds in clinical or preclinical testing."
Last year GSK announced it would allow royalty-free access to its patents and knowhow on drugs for neglected diseases (see Glaxo patent rethink sparks debate), as well as ploughing 20 per cent of profits made in least developed countries back into their health systems and cutting drug prices.
However, no other drug company joined the patent pool.