Open source medicine puts health above profits

There is an open source revolution brewing in health care where noble motivations prevail over profit.

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DIY citizen science will not replace clinical trials or scientific research, but it could contribute useful data. It's not a new concept; for example archeology, paleontology, and astronomy all have a tradition of incorporating amateur contributions. The founder of DIYgenomics, Melanie Swan, researched how these citizen studies need to be conducted so that they will be taken seriously by scientists, and be published in scientific journals. Her paper Crowdsourced Health Research Studies: An Important Emerging Complement to Clinical Trials in the Public Health Research Ecosystem goes into detail on the value of citizen science.

Open source drug discovery for malaria

Tropical diseases take a big toll in illness and death every year, but commercial medicine is not very interested in them because the profit potential is so low; the people affected by them are mainly in poor countries. About 1% of newly-developed drugs are for tropical diseases, but malaria, respiratory infections, HIV/AIDS, diarrheal diseases, and tuberculosis are leading killers in lower-income tropical and sub-tropical countries.

Open Source Drug Discovery for Malaria, OSDD, was launched in 2011 as a worldwide hub for malaria drug research. The first participants were the Todd Research Group at the University of Sydney and the Medicines for Malaria Venture. The Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV) is a global organization with partnerships with universities, research labs, and pharmaceutical companies. OSDD makes good use of open source technologies: Twitter, Google+, MediaWiki, and The Synaptic Leap, which hosts a number of open source biomedical research communities, is built with the Drupal content management system.

Dr. Matthew Todd, head of the Todd Research Group, already has a major open source drug success story, and that is the inexpensive synthesis of enantiopure praziquantel, the drug used to treat schistosomiasis (Bilharzia). This is a debilitating disease that affects about a half of a billion people worldwide. Enantiopure praziquantel is now on the World Health Organization's list of essential medicines, and is distributed by WHO and the Gates Foundation. Take a look at the list for children -- it's an eye-opener. So are the leading causes of death, sorted by income. The diseases of poverty and the diseases of affluence are very different.

fig2-pzq.jpgSource: Dr. Matthew Todd
Figure 2: Synthesizing PZQ; this is the type of information that commercial pharmaceutical companies keep secret

Silver bullet for cancer

There are always dark rumors about cures that are suppressed because sickness is so profitable. Big pharma, the government, men in black -- whoever is doing the suppressing is very effective, because cancer is a leading killer worldwide. (Tobacco use is the leading preventable cause of cancer, just in case anyone still harbors any doubts.) The beauty of open source is it doesn't matter if it's true or not, because once information is released into the wild it can't be hidden. A great illustration of this is the research launched by Dr. Jay Bradner at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, which to me, seems like a genuine breakthrough. There are hundreds of different cancers, and treatments are specific to each type of cancer. Obviously this is inherently difficult and expensive, so what if there is a "silver bullet" that cures all cancers? The quest for a cancer silver bullet is not new, but Dr. Bradner may have found it by asking "How does cancer know it's cancer?" A cancer cell has all the genes necessary to become any other kind of cell, so as it reproduces, how does it know to keep reproducing as a cancer cell?

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