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The open-source model has turned software production on its head; the decentralized, collaborative process in which anyone can look at, modify, or improve the “source code” of a computer program, provided they agree to share their modifications under the same terms, has resulted in some impressive software–Linux being the best-known example. Now biomedical researchers are beginning to question whether a similar approach could benefit drug development, according to The Economist.

At this week’s BIO 2004, a major biotech industry conference, Stephen Maurer, Arti Rai and Andrej Sali–two lawyers and a computational biologist–presented a paper calling for an open-source approach to invent drugs to fight tropical diseases. The group’s Tropical Disease Initiative would have researchers volunteer their expertise, collaborate on experiments, and post all data openly, much as happened in the Human Genome Project. However, while researchers would self-organize the direction of studies, much as happens on open-source software projects, drug development is a far more expensive undertaking than software development. The authors acknowledge that government or other major funding would be necessary to get the project going. In addition, any drug to come out of the project would go in the public domain, for generic manufacturers to produce, ensuring its availability to the most people at the lowest cost.

The idea is catching on in the biomedical research community; several other groups have adopted similar strategies. Experts see two area that could particularly benefit: discovering new applications for non-patentable compounds and drugs whose patents have expired, and developing treatments for diseases that afflict small numbers of people, such as Parkinson’s disease, or are found mainly in poor countries, such as malaria. Open source may be an idea whose time has come, for more than just computer geeks.

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