June 2008 marked the 10th anniversary of the complete sequencing of M. tuberculosis genome, which was made available as open source to the scientific community. However, despite over ten years of effort by Industry and R&D Laboratories and the isolated efforts of individuals worldwide, not even a single new drug molecule against tuberculosis has resulted, although some are at various stages of clinical trials.Most public-funded institutions do a lot of biomedical research but the last mile of drug discovery is left to the pharmaceutical industry, which is essentially a “closed-door” activity. With respect to diseases of the poor, for example, tuberculosis , where the market incentive is very small, it is not possible to convince the pharmaceutical companies to work on these drugs.
I believe that affordable healthcare is a right for all. But, pragmatically speaking, when it comes to health, we need to have a balanced view between health as a right and health as a business. Therefore it is the responsibility of public-funded institutions to participate in this area in an open collaborative mode. Confidentiality and IPR Protection increases cost and decreases free knowledge sharing for drug discovery. Targeted drugs that are market driven — or that rich people can afford — can be made by the patent-protected route. But for drugs that are not driven by the market and those are needed by the poor, open source is an advantage. The choice depends on the product being considered. The strategy used to protect a factory is different from the strategy used to protect a paddy field. It might be worth building a wall around a factory and restricting access, but one does not build walls around paddy fields. If you do, then the cost of building and maintaining the wall will add to the price of rice, and the poor will no longer be able to buy it. Open source is for the 'paddy fields' that everyone needs, not for the luxury goods factory.
Another important point, somewhat overlooked, is the participation of young, brilliant minds in the open source model. The open source model gives students in colleges and universities an opportunity to experience and share scientific excitement. It provides a practical platform to them and an opportunity to contribute to the scientific cause. Brilliance flourishes where knowledge is free and the mind unfettered to soar to the highest reaches of excellence. I believe that, in principle, technology areas can also benefit from the open source model. Let us join hands in the war for the right to health and affordable medicines for all. Together, we can make a difference.
Samir. K Brahmachari
Chief Mentor, OSDD