It’s time to bring the same efficiencies to human health that the network brought to commerce and culture. And to do that, it takes a Commons.
“An Introduction to Health Commons” by John Wilbanks
Science Commons’ John Wilbanks lays out the argument for the Health Commons – how the existing drug discovery process is broken, and where to look for inspiration in how to fix it.
For our complete vision, please read Health Commons: Therapy Development in a Networked World – an introduction and overview, by John Wilbanks and Marty Tenenbaum.
The Health Commons: Solving the Health Research Puzzle
The pharmaceutical industry is at a crossroads. Despite revolutionary advances in molecular biology that have made genetic decoding routine, the time from gene to cure still stands at 17 years. High-throughput screening methods allow us to test the efficacy of millions of compounds against a molecular target in a single week; but the odds of one of those compounds making it through the development pipeline and becoming a drug are less than 1/1,000,000. A well-funded group starting today, using the traditional model of drug development, has a very slim chance at getting a drug to market by 2025.
The time has come to change the way we cure disease. We are no longer asking whether a gene or a molecule is critical to a particular biological process; rather, we are discovering whole networks of molecular and cellular interactions that contribute to disease. And soon, we will have such information about individuals, rather than the population as a whole. Biomedical knowledge is exploding, and yet the system to capture that knowledge and translate it into saving human lives still relies on an antiquated and risky strategy of focusing the vast resources of a few pharmaceutical companies on just a handful of disease targets.
The Health Commons Vision
Imagine a virtual marketplace or ecosystem where participants share data, knowledge, materials and services to accelerate research. The components might include databases on the results of chemical assays, toxicity screens, and clinical trials; libraries of drugs and chemical compounds; repositories of biological materials (tissue samples, cell lines, molecules), computational models predicting drug efficacies or side effects, and contract services for high-throughput genomics and proteomics, combinatorial drug screening, animal testing, biostatistics, and more. The resources offered through the Commons might not necessarily be free, though many could be. However, all would be available under standard pre-negotiated terms and conditions and with standardized data formats that eliminate the debilitating delays, legal wrangling and technical incompatibilities that frustrate scientific collaboration today.
We envision a Commons where a researcher will be able to order everything needed to replicate a published experiment as easily as ordering DVDs from Amazon. A Commons where one can create a workflow to exploit replicated results on an industrial scale – searching the world’s biological repositories for relevant materials; routing them to the best labs for molecular profiling; forwarding the data to a team of bioinfomaticians for collaborative analysis of potential drug targets; and finally hiring top service providers to run drug screens against those targets; with everything – knowledge, data, and materials – moving smoothly from one provider to the next, monitored and tracked with Fed-Ex precision; where the workflow scripts themselves can become part of the Commons, for others to reuse and improve. Health Commons’ marketplace will slash the time, cost, and risk of developing treatments for diseases. Individual researchers, institutions, and companies will be able to publish information about their expertise and resources so that others in the community can readily discover and use them. Core competencies, from clinical trial design to molecular profiling, will be packaged as turnkey services and made available over the Net. The Commons will serve as the public-domain, non-profit hub, with third-parties providing value added services that facilitate information access, communication, and collaboration.
What is Health Commons?
Health Commons is a coalition of parties interested in changing the way basic science is translated into the understanding and improvement of human health. Coalition members agree to share data, knowledge, and services under standardized terms and conditions by committing to a set of common technologies, digital information standards, research materials, contracts, workflows, and software. These commitments ensure that knowledge, data, materials and tools can move seamlessly from partner to partner across the entire drug discovery chain. They enable participants to offer standardized services, ranging from simple molecular assays to complex drug synthesis solutions, that others can discover in directories and integrate into their own processes to expedite development — or assemble like LEGO blocks to create new services.
The Health Commons is too complex for any one organization or company to create. It requires a coalition of partners across the spectrum. It is also too complex for public, private, or non-profit organizations alone – reinventing therapy development for the networked world requires, from the beginning, a commitment to public-private partnership. Only through a public-private partnership can the key infrastructure of the Commons be created: the investments in the public domain of information and materials will only be realized if that public domain is served by a private set of systems integrators and materials, tools and service providers motivated by profit. And in turn, the long-term success of the private sector depends on a growing, robust, and self-replenishing public domain of data, research tools, and open source software.
The Health Commons Founders