Each year, about 200 million people get sick with malaria, and about 600,000 people die from the infection—most of them young children. The quest for new malaria therapeutics is a pressing ongoing public health issue. It’s particularly challenging, as the aggressive malaria parasite becomes drug resistant extremely quickly.
The Open Source Malaria Consortium invites scientists from around the around to freely share their research on anti-malaria drugs through a transparent, online platform. The hope is to accelerate discovery of new drug candidates to be entered into pre-clinical development. All data and ideas are shared openly. There are no patents.
In 2011, Matt Todd, an Associate Professor of Chemistry at The University of Sydney in Australia, helped create the collaborative project which uses open access to laboratory notebooks and social media notifications to allow participants to keep up on each other’s findings in real time as they work on new molecules. This nimble network of contributors includes senior scientists with pharmaceutical companies, retired researchers, chemists, and students from high school through post-doc.
Since its launch, the Open Source Malaria Consortium has attracted more than a hundred contributors who post their drug discovery and development findings, discuss their work, and build on each other’s ideas for potential cures. The project serves as a repository of projects so researchers can see what molecules have and have not proven promising. All information is machine discoverable so others can locate the work and reuse the data.
“People respect the fact there are no secrets and everyone knows where everyone stands and knows what’s going on,” says Todd of the consortium, which has produced a scientific paper, with 50 authors, currently awaiting publication.
Progress so far is incremental but promising. Through the open consortium, three potential new treatments were studied—although ultimately, dismissed. A fourth is being vetted. The goal is to develop a pipeline of new drugs to outwit the deadly parasite.
While malaria is the current focus, the consortium model could easily be replicated to research a variety of diseases, says Todd. Efforts are underway to set up an Open Source TB Project. The goal is for open source pharmaceutical development to be a genuinely effective competing model, alongside research happening at private pharmaceutical companies, he says. The Open Source Malaria Consortium was honored by the Accelerating Science Award Program in 2013 for leveraging open research practices to make a difference in science.
“Our project is one part of an amazing campaign to promote Open Access and Open Data,” says Todd. “It’s so exciting to see gains being made and to demonstrate to people how much more productive and efficient research can be if you are open.”