Drug discovery is by definition slow and costly. The multiphase process, which begins with basic science research and ends with clinical trials, can consume up to two decades and more than a billion dollars.
For NTDs such as African sleeping sickness and Chagas disease, the outlook is even grimmer: anti-infective drugs tend to have higher fail rates than other drugs, as parasites quickly develop resistance. And since NTDs predominantly affect low-income populations, the incentive for big pharmaceutical companies to improve on current treatments is low.
But current treatments are ghastly. In some cases, the drugs themselves can be poisonous and have high mortality rates. With one-third of the planet’s population at risk for NTDs, a new paradigm is required.
Northeastern University chemistry and chemical biology professor Michael Pollastri believes an open-source science model will hasten the drug discovery process. Despite great advances in NTD research over the last decade, the global research effort is largely uncoordinated.
“We’re wasting resources in a very resource-poor area,” says Pollastri, who spent nine years in the pharmaceutical industry before transitioning to academia. “There is a range of data sharing scenarios,” he says.
Pollastri’s team is currently developing a framework that will fall between the two extremes of complete openness and the fully closed model that is standard to the commercial industry. This way, Pollastri says, participants can share data without fearing for their intellectual property.
The framework will include a data store, in which various member labs can share chemical structures, drug screening results, and toxicity and selectivity data, for example. In order to be admitted to the data store, members will be required to sign a confidentiality agreement ensuring they will not share data outside of the pool and will not attempt to patent or publish someone else’s work.
It is hoped that organizations such as the Medicines for Malaria Venture and the Drugs for Neglected Disease Initiative will want to have a “front row seat” on research taking place within the group. These organizations seek to develop new NTD drugs, and as such can inform research efforts to bring even more coordination to the project.
The new framework is part of a broader Integrated Global Health Initiative, recently launched at Northeastern and spearheaded by Pollastri. The initiative will bring together researchers across disciplines to develop better policies and more effective drugs. It will also include the development of new curricula, through which students from the sciences will be trained in public health and policy. Similarly, public health and policy students will gain exposure to the chemical and biological sciences, which are central in drug and diagnostic discovery.
Pollastri notes that the integrated approach will allow researchers and students to address issues such as public health policy, human rights concerns and resource allocation in a more comprehensive way. Ultimately, he says, drug discovery must be complemented by robust preventative and policy measures. “We don’t want to just fix the problem after you get the disease,” he says. “We would like to prevent the disease.”
Angela Herring is a science writer at Northeastern University.