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Tuesday, June 15, 2004

An open-source shot in the arm , for medical research via Economist

Medicine: The open-source model is a good way to produce software, as the example of Linux shows. Could the same collaborative approach now revitalise medical research too?CAN goodwill, aggregated over the internet, produce good medicine? The current approach to drug discovery works up to a point, but it is far from perfect. It is costly to develop medicines and get regulatory approval. The patent system can foreclose new uses or enhancements by outside researchers. And there has to be a consumer willing (or able) to pay for the resulting drugs, in order to justify the cost of drug development. Pharmaceutical companies have little incentive to develop treatments for diseases that particularly afflict the poor, for example, since the people who need such treatments most may not be able to afford them.Open source is a decentralised form of production in which the underlying programming instructions, or “source code”, for a given piece of software are made freely available. Anyone can look at it, modify it, or improve it, provided they agree to share their modifications under the same terms.This interesting article explores whether or not the open-source software movement can be applied to pharmaceutical drug development. This highlights a couple of areas where such collaboration might be effective--drugs whose patents have expired (other uses for aspirin, for instance) and diseases that affect small numbers of people or are mostly found in poor countries.There are a number of other similarities between biomedical research and open-source software development. First, both fields attract the same sort of people. Biology, like software, relies on teams of volunteers, notably graduate students and young professionals, who have an incentive to get involved because it will enhance their professional reputations or establish expertise. Both medical biologists and computer scientists aim to improve people's lives and make the world a better place. And as the human-genome project showed, both cultures respond strongly to grand projects, not just financial incentives—possibly because they are generally highly paid to begin with. Dissimilarities also abound
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