At a time when demand for open data in health and drug discovery is dominating the digital space, some researchers say the model could work for Africa and alleviate the sufferings of many from these diseases.
“The amount of resources going into drug discovery for African neglected diseases by Africa in Africa is small. Open [source] can make an impact by supporting best practices and the best chances of results.”
Tim Wells, Medicines for Malaria Venture
Following the call on 23 April this year from the WHO for the disclosure of all results from clinical trials of new medicines, there is a push towards greater transparency.
Open access presents opportunities for African research and international collaboration, according to Michelle Willmers, project manager of Open Data Africa Initiative, University of Cape Town, South Africa.
“Open data initiatives provide local researchers with more avenues to get involved in what previously may have been considered high-level, niche or expensive drug discovery research,” says Willmers tells SciDev.Net in an exclusive interview.
Tim Wells, chief scientific officer of Switzerland-based Medicines for Malaria Venture, one of the funders of Open Source Malaria (OSM), says the initiative promotes the discovery of treatments against malaria through access to an open database of resources that lack patents. Users are encouraged to share data and ideas back into the domain.
“The amount of resources going into drug discovery for African neglected diseases by Africa in Africa is small. Open [source] can make an impact by supporting best practices and the best chances of results,” Wells adds.
Daniela Bagozzi, a WHO senior information manager, tells SciDev.Net: “The principle of data sharing is not new; it's one of the tenets of medical research and it allows for better knowledge shared across the scientific community so that decisions on medical products and public health spending can be made on the basis of sound knowledge.”
Matt Todd, a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney in Australia and leader of OSM, agrees: “We can share positive and negative outcomes, overcome the unproductive duplication of work and learn from experts around the world.”
Todd is also developing Open Source TB under the same tenets as OSM.
Neglected diseases affect over one billion people globally, according to WHO, with many of the diseases common in Africa. However, they are often overlooked by drug companies, which cannot recover the cost of developing and producing treatments. But the open data movement has received support from some pharmaceutical companies. For instance, through an open database, the GlaxoSmithKline Open Lab initiative has made available nearly two million compounds known to have activity against the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum.
Building on the Open Lab data from GSK, Michael Pollastri, a professor of chemistry at Northeastern University in Massachusetts, United States, has created an open source model that has nearly 800 chemical compounds that could lead to drug treatments for African sleeping sickness.
“This is the largest set of published compounds tested against African sleeping sickness to date, and represents a strong starting point for drug discovery,” he says.
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.