Open source TB megaproject yields first fruits

The project used online tools to map the 4,000 genes of M. tuberculosis Copyright: Flickr/AJC1

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[NEW DELHI] A unique effort by scientists to pull together scattered genetic information about the tuberculosis (TB) bug, with the goal of developing new remedies, has identified its first candidate molecule.

The Open Source Drug Discovery (OSDD) programme aroused huge interest when it was mooted by Samir Brahmachari, director-general of India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), in 2007, because it offered a new route to finding drugs for diseases in the developing world traditionally neglected by drug companies (see ‘Open source’ urged for TB drug design effort).

CSIR launched the programme in September 2008. Its research is conducted through collaboration and open source information, guaranteeing, it is hoped, that any drug developed from the process will be affordable.

Brahmachari announced this week (11 April) that the one of the first projects undertaken under the initiative —  ‘Connect to Decode’ or C2D — to pool all available genetic and biological information on Mycobacterium tuberculosis has yielded the first tangible results.

He said that for the first time TB scientists, research students and five private companies had used online tools to combine their work to show the links between the 4,000 genes of M. tuberculosis and the proteins for which they code.

The work is held in a shared database that OSDD will share through its open portal.

"This is the first time that a comprehensive mapping of the M. tuberculosis genome has been compiled, verified and made publicly available. C2D’s findings may contain critical data to unlock previously undiscovered details of tuberculosis resulting in development opportunities for urgently needed new TB drugs in India and other developing countries,” Brahmachari said.

The project has already yielded a molecule that could form the basis for a drug to fight TB. Rajesh Gokhale — director of India’s Institute of Genomics and Integrated Biology — and his team have given the molecule to pharmaceutical company Jubilant Chemsys for development.

Five private pharmaceutical companies have so far joined the OSDD programme: Jubilant Chemsys, TCG Lifesciences, Sugen Life Sciences, PREMAS Biotech and Vimta Labs.

"We were looking for a solution that would make research into drugs for neglected diseases possible and would not pass on the expense to patients and governments. OSDD provides these answers,” said Leena Menghaney, programme officer at the Indian branch of international medical and humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières.

"Companies go where there is money," said Brahmachari. "Our philosophy is we will take private sector companies if they agree to our cost-plus-ten-per-cent model and the condition that the molecule is generic from stage one. There may or may not be patents but it would still be open for the whole world as the entire research is open source.”