Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Open-source science - can you dig it?

According to a story from Chemical and Engineering News, "Scientists from Sydney to San Francisco have created an online research collaboration to develop cures for tropical diseases, using the 'open source' programming model that produced freeware like Linux and Firefox, the award-winning Web browser.

The motivation is straightforward: Tropical diseases are low priority for big pharma because the return on drug development is so small. Patients in developing nations just don't have the financial ability to pay for patented drugs.

The structure is radical: Online discussions will prioritize a list of experiments that anyone can take on. Raw data will be posted online and discussed. Members of the consortium will solicit further ideas and expertise, hoping the greater research community steps up to the plate.

The group, which operates under an umbrella website called Synaptic Leap, hopes that volunteered time, computer power, and reagents will eventually result in a portfolio of drug leads that will be made freely available for development. Currently, members of Synaptic Leap are describing projects online and asking others for help and advice.

Participants in open-source collaborations give up their ability to patent discoveries by definition, because their data are public as soon as they are posted. But some argue that when it comes to neglected diseases, there's nothing to lose, because there was never any income to gain."