Can open innovation accelerate the development of drugs for neglected diseases like tuberculosis, malaria, and sleeping sickness? It certainly can’t hurt, but the circumstances need to be just right, if a recent experiment by GlaxoSmithKline is any indication. Yesterday at BIO, there was a news conference to announce the expansion of the Pool for Open Innovation against Neglected Tropical Diseases, a collection of patents and know-how related to those diseases. M.I.T. is the first university to contribute intellectual property, and South Africa’s Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) is the first government organization to sign on as an end-user of the resources.
GSK established the patent pool in February 2009, and Alnylam opened access to its 1,500 patents related to RNAi last summer. But the program seemed to languish in the following months, a situation seemingly caused by confusion over what to do with all that patent information.
In January, the non-profit BIO Ventures for Global Health joined as a third-party administrator of the pool, and will help link academics, non-profits and biotechs to the right information and human resources available through the project. After all, freedom to conduct research without fear of patent infringement is great, but only helps if scientists know how to turn an idea into a drug.
The hope is that momentum will build now that BVGH has signed on as a matchmaker between those contributing patents and know-how and end-users of those resources. As BVGH’s CEO Melinda Moree found, a broad request to pharma often goes nowhere, but if BVGH can help users hone their needs into granular “asks”—help in formulating a drug, or advice on how to make a product heat stable, for example—drug companies are quick to help.
Skeptics will wonder if the program is more about creating good will than substantial scientific progress. Moree says BVGH had similar concerns, and asked some hard questions before signing on as its administrator. “We had to assure ourselves before taking on the role of third-party administrator that the parties involved were actually really serious about seeing drugs come out at the other end. We don’t have time to waste,” Moree says.
GSK’s commitment goes beyond merely opening up its patent vault. The British firm will allow scientists to spend time at its Tres Cantos R&D facility in Spain in order to speed their drug discovery efforts.
South Africa’s TIA, which supports 12 biotech firms, including four focused on neglected diseases, plans to take advantage of that offer. The Tres Cantos site can accommodate up to 60 visiting scientists, who are expected to stay between six months and a year, though the most likely scenario will be for small groups to come on a rotating basis. There’s no set date for when South African scientists will head to Spain—as Nick Cammack, head of Tres Cantos, pointed out at the press conference yesterday, GSK, TIA, and BVGH just met in Cape Town two weeks ago to hammer out the memorandum of understanding signed yesterday.
On a personal note, the press conference turned out to be a welcome reunion with many of the folks I met last year while traveling around South Africa to learn about the country’s efforts to establish a biotech industry. Government agencies, universities and entrepreuneurs are facing an uphill battle as they try to simultaneously train young scientists in the art of drug discovery and create companies where those scientists can be gainfully employed. South Africa has struggled to stem a scientific brain drain, and time and again students told me of their struggle to justify the time and financial investment in an advanced degree when there were few science jobs to be had at home.
As TIA’s chair Mamphela Ramphele noted, the ability to train at GSK’s Tres Cantos facility will provide a great opportunity not only to learn, but to transfer technology back home. The support of the open innovation pool for fledgling biotechs in South Africa provides incentive for scientists to come back to South Africa. “If we do this in a very strategic way, we could over five years have quite a significant impact on the quality of human and intellectual capital,” Ramphele said.
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