The development of drugs for tropical diseases, such as African sleeping sickness and leishmaniasis, is rarely a priority for commercial pharmaceutical companies.
One approach to tackling this problem has been for governments and charities to subsidise drug development. Another has been for charities to create non-profit organisations that identify drug candidates and then employ commercial companies to develop the drugs.
Such 'virtual pharmas' have been the more successful of the two approaches, say Stephen M. Maurer and colleagues in the November issue of PLoS Medicine. But they want to explore a third way, suggesting that 'open source'– or open access – drug discovery, with results being made freely available, would form an online, collaborative, community-based approach to drug development for neglected diseases
They propose a 'Tropical Diseases Initiative' that would ask scientists to share knowledge freely, and for academic institutions to donate data and research tools, in return for non-monetary rewards such as "ideological satisfaction".
The researchers also believe that bypassing patents would spur competition in drug development, as candidate drugs could be developed by anyone with an interest in doing so. Ultimately, they say, advances in technology could turn what is currently a "shoestring operation that exists mainly on the web" into an inexpensive yet practical enterprise.