Sabbatical Day 1

Today I’m starting a 6-month sabbatical. Sabbaticals are a perk of academia (though every profession should have them) allowing the sabbaticalee to learn something new, start up a new project or mull over a large problem, freed of administrative and teaching responsibilities. It also provides time to finish papers, write grant proposals etc. Some people, for pragmatic reasons, take sabbaticals at their home institution, a staybattical if you will, but nothing beats the disruption of a move, and talking to new people, for thinking about tough problems in a new way.

So what am I doing? I’m in Boston till September then in Oxford till January.

The focus is on open source drug discovery. My lab ran an open science project in drug synthesis in tropical diseases with WHO, and is now at the centre of a fascinating experiment in open source drug discovery known as Open Source Malaria (OSM), with MMV. The first malaria papers will be written up in the coming months. There is a huge amount to do in OSM, but the project has achieved some key objectives already, in terms of demonstrating how open drug discovery can function efficiently, leveraging the power of a nimble and distributed group and identifying new, potent anti-malarial drug candidates. More on OSM in future posts. One of my main objectives during the sabbatical is to look at how we can scale-up OSM in the next 3 years, since it needs to be made larger if it is to compete effectively with established, large, closed projects operating elsewhere.

University of Sydney contributors to OSM - me, Tom MacDonald, Jo Ubels and Alice Williamson

University of Sydney contributors to OSM – me, Tom MacDonald, Jo Ubels and Alice Williamson

My lab is starting up a project in Open Source Tuberculosis, with GSK Tres Cantos. This is exciting for lots of reasons, and I’ll be writing more on this project soon too, but with TB we move slightly closer to a disease area where drugs have a positive net present value, jargon for the idea that there is a profit incentive to TB drug discovery that makes an open approach more difficult to conceptualize end-to-end: how can an open source approach compete with commercial or academia/industry projects where future profits (guaranteed through patents) are used to off-set up-front funding of the research?

So here are the two questions I’ll be looking at:

1) How can we scale-up open source drug discovery precedents like OSM to become part of a new pharma industry?

2) Could we use open source drug discovery in areas normally associated with a profit, such as cancer, Alzheimer’s or diabetes?

These are great questions because it’s not clear how to answer them. My expertise is organic chemistry, and that is the important technical discipline I bring to such questions. The experience of previous open science projects has I think taught us a lot about how to run them. But I don’t want to contribute anything to a research effort that is either sub-par, or which is not maximally efficient. I don’t think we’re doing drug discovery (or, indeed, organic chemistry) efficiently. Indeed I think we’re hemorrhaging resources in the way we’re currently doing science. It is, to be frank, toe-curling. So I want to look at the two questions above so that I and my students can contribute only to the very best projects with the best structure and the most likelihood of finding a new medicine.

To start to answer question 1, I’m helping run this unique meeting. The outcomes will be written up and extensively disseminated. It’s very exciting to get this group of people together, all of whom are in touch with an even wider network of talented people who are interested in trying something new. We’ll be discussing prizes, for example – the idea that if you award large sums for research performed you can separate out the costs of research from the price of a medicine. I’m very excited to see what comes out of the meeting.

To answer question 2 I am visiting two institutes, both leading the field in data sharing for drug discovery in areas such as epigenetics. So from late June to mid-September I’ll be in Boston working with Brian Hubbard’s team at the Harvard/MIT Broad Institute – this is a great fit because Brian and his colleagues have extensive industry experience, but have moved to the Broad to try out something genuinely new.

Boston, on the morning of Day 1

Boston, on the morning of Day 1

Then from late September to early January I’ll be at the Structural Genomics Consortium at the University of Oxford, working with Chas Bountra. (The chief medicinal chemist there, Paul Brennan, is a buddy of mine from postdoc days at Berkeley). Chas has been a leader in open science for some time, securing extensive funds for the SGC’s activities and working effectively with the pharma industry to share data that underpins much of the structural biology that fuels rational drug design. The aim in both places: to collect together a group of people willing and able to try a project in open source drug discovery in an area such as cancer. i.e. to define a target, a hit compound, a scientific project structure and a governance/financial plan for how something like this might work. Both the Broad and the SGC lead the world in sharing data related to biomedicine, but neither have an open source project currently operating – i.e. one where anyone from outside those institutes may contribute, and it is clear what the project will do tomorrow. Collecting such a group together is really tough, and I don’t know how to do this, which is why I need a sabbatical. The aim is a project that is properly federated – labs in several countries working on the same project, using local funds, acting as a kernel, to which anyone else may contribute should they have the expertise. How?

So I’m in Boston till September, then Oxford till the end of the year. Ping me if you want to talk about open drug discovery or organic chemistry. Even better, if you’re interested in trying out something in open drug discovery, by contributing to a consortium of loosely affiliated scientists who share what they do each day, please get in touch.