A commons-sense approach to winning the drug discovery lottery
February 23rd, 2008 by dwentworth
In a new piece [free reg. req.] this week from GenomeWeb Daily News, Aled Edwards — director and CEO of the Structural Genomics Consortium — describes the drug discovery process as a “lottery,” and argues that increasing the chances for discovery will require that people in “academia, industry, and funding bodies collaborate and keep new structural data accessible to all researchers who might be interested in using it.”
The sentiment echoes those of Science Commons’ own John Wilbanks, who earlier this year wrote a post on the Nature Network comparing drug discovery to a game of roulette. It’s a game, says Wilbanks, that people win by “betting on every square, then patenting the one that wins and extracting high rents from it.” The biggest problem in this scenario, he argues, isn’t the existence of patents, but the sheer complexity of the human body, and how much we still have to learn about it:
Human bodies make microprocessors look like children’s toys in terms of complexity. …Complexity is the problem both in terms of our understanding of bodies and drugs and in terms of reworking the models around discovery. This system regularly and utterly defeats the best efforts of many entrepreneurs and policy reformers to change things for the better.
So what’s the solution? According to Wilbanks, it’s a “commons approach,” which entails precisely the kind of collaboration that Edwards advocates:
It requires open access to content, journals and databases both. It requires that database creators think about their products as existing in a network, and provide hooks for the network, not just query access. It requires that funders pay for biobanks to store research tools. It requires that pharmaceutical companies take a hard look at their private assets and build some trust in entities that make sharing possible. It requires that scientists share their stuff (this is the elephant in the lab, frankly). It requires that universities track sharing as a metric of scientific and societal impact.
It is not easy. But it is, in a way, a very simple change. It just requires the flipping of a switch, from a default rule of “sharing doesn’t matter” to one of “sharing matters enormously.” It is as easy, and as hard, as the NIH mandate on open access. It’s a matter of willpower.
Edwards points out that governments and academic institutions spend “hundreds of billions of dollars” each year on activities related to drug development, and biotech and pharmaceutical companies “spend another $50 billion.” Yet the pace of discovery remains static — and according to Edwards, may even be slowing down.
Clearly, the current approach isn’t working. We at Science Commons are encouraged that more people are coming to understand that it’s time for a new approach to tilt the odds in our favor — so that we can save not only time and money, but also human lives.