Open Innovation: Quo Vadis, Pharmaceutical R&D?

Is the Pharmaceutical R&D moving from the traditional models to much less uncharted frontiers?

Perhaps towards this direction, in November, 2010 in a report titled, “Open Source Innovation Increasingly Being Used to Promote Innovation in the Drug Discovery Process and Boost Bottomline”, Frost & Sullivan underscored the urgent need of the global pharmaceutical companies to respond to the challenges of high cost and low productivity in their respective Research and Development initiatives, in general.

‘Open Innovation’ model, they proposed, will be most appropriate in the current scenario to improve not only profit, but also to promote more innovative approaches in the drug discovery process.  Currently, on an average it takes about 8 to 10 years to bring an NCE/NME to market with a cost of around U.S$ 1.7 billion.

The concept of ‘Open Innovation’ is being quite successfully used by the Information Technology (IT) industry since nearly three decades all over the world, including in India.  Web Technology, the Linux Operating System (OS) and even the modern day ‘Android’ – the open source mobile OS, are excellent examples of ‘Open source innovation’ in IT.

In the sphere of Biotechnology Human Genome Sequencing is another remarkable outcome in this area.

On May 12, 2011, in an International Seminar held in New Delhi, the former President of India Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam commented, “Open Source Drug Discovery (OSDD) explores new models of drug discovery”. He highlighted the need for the scientists, researchers and academics to get effectively engaged in ‘open source philosophy’ by pooling talent, patents, knowledge and resources for specific R&D initiatives from across the world. In today’s world ‘Open Innovation’ in the pharmaceutical R&D has a global relevance, especially, for the developing world of ‘have-nots’.

The ‘Open Innovation’ model: 

As the name suggest, ‘Open Innovation’ or the ‘Open Source Drug Discovery (OSDD)’ is an open source code model of discovering a New Chemical Entity (NCE) or a New Molecular Entity (NME). In this model all data generated related to the discovery research will be available in the open for collaborative inputs. The licensing arrangement of OSDD where both invention and copyrights will be involved, are quite different from any ‘Open Source’ license for a software development.

In ‘Open Innovation’, the key component is the supportive pathway of its information network, which is driven by three key parameters of open development, open access and open source.

As stated earlier, ‘Open Innovation’ concept was successfully used in the ‘Human Genome Project’ where a large number of scientists, and microbiologists participated from across the world to sequence and understand the human genes. However, this innovation process was first used to understand the mechanics of proteins by the experts of the Biotech and pharmaceutical industries.

The Objectives of ‘Open Innovation’: 

The key objective of ‘Open Innovation’ in pharmaceuticals is to encourage drug discovery initiatives, especially for the dreaded disease like cancer and also the neglected diseases of the developing countries to make these drugs affordable to the marginalized people of the world.

Key benefits of ‘Open Innovation’:

According to the above report of Frost & Sullivan on the subject, the key benefits of ‘Open Innovation’ in pharmaceuticals will include:

• Bringing together the best available minds to tackle “extremely challenging”   diseases

• Speed of innovation

• Risk-sharing

• Affordability

Some issues:

Many experts feel that the key issues for ‘Open Innovation’ model are as follows:

  • Who will fund the project and how much?
  • Who will lead the project?
  • Who will coordinate the project and find talents?
  • Who will take it through clinical development and regulatory approval process?

However, all these do not seem to be an insurmountable problem at all, as the  saying goes, ‘where there is a will, there is a way’.

Current Global initiatives for ‘Open Innovation’:

  1. In June 2008, GlaxoSmithKline announced in Philadelphia that it was donating an important slice of its research on cancer cells to the cancer research community to boost the collaborative battle against this disease. With this announcement, genomic profiling data for over 300 sets of cancer cell lines was released by GSK to the National Cancer Institute’s bioinformatics grid. It has been reported that over 900 researchers actively contribute to this grid from across the industry, research institutes, academia and NGOs. Many believe that this initiative will further gain momentum to encourage many more academic institutions, researchers and even smaller companies to add speed to the drug discovery pathways and at the same time make the NCEs/NMEs coming through such process much less expensive and affordable to a large section of the society, across the globe.
  2. The Alzheimer’s  Disease Neuroimaging Initiative (ADNI) is another example of a Private Public Partnership (PPP) project with an objective to define the rate of progress of mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease, develop improved methods for clinical trials in this area and provide a large database which will improve design of treatment trials’. 
  3. Recently announced ‘Open invitation’ strategy of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) to discover innovative drugs for malaria is yet another example where GSK has collaborated with European Bioinformatics Institute and U.S. National Library of Medicine to make the details of the molecule available to the researchers free of cost with an initial investment of US $ 8 million to set up the research facility in Spain involving around 60 scientists from across the world to work in this facility.

‘Open Innovation’ in India: 

In India, Dr. Samir Brahmachari, the Director General of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) is the champion of the OSDD movement. CSIR believes that for a developing country like India OSDD will help the common man to meet his unmet medical needs in the areas of neglected tropical diseases.

‘Open Innovation’ project of CSIR is a now a global platform to address the neglected tropical diseases like, tuberculosis, malaria, leishmaniasis by the best research brains of the world working together for a common cause.

To fund this initiative of the CSIR the Government of India has allocated around U.S $40 million and an equivalent amount of funding would be raised from international agencies and philanthropists.

Success of ‘Open Innovation’ initiative of CSIR: 

Sometime in late November 2009, I received a communication from the CSIR informing that their OSDD project, since its launch in September 2009, has crossed 2000 registered users in a very short span of time. The pace of increasing number of registered users indeed reflects the confidence that this initiative has garnered among the interested researchers across the world.

CSIR has indicated that the next big leap planned by them in the area of ‘Open Innovation’ is to completely re-annotate the MTb genome for which they have already launched a project titled ‘Connect to Decode’ 2010.


Currently pharmaceutical R&D is an in-house initiative of innovator global companies. Mainly for commercial security reasons only limited number of scientists working for the respective innovator companies will have access to these projects.

‘Open Innovation’ on the other hand, has the potential to create a win-win situation, bringing in substantial benefits to both the pharmaceutical innovators and the patients.

The key advantage of the ‘Open Innovation’ model will be substantial reduction in the costs and time of R&D projects, which could be achieved through voluntary participation of a large number of researchers/Scientists/Institutions in key R&D initiatives. This in turn will significantly reduce the ‘mind-to-market’ time of more affordable New Chemical/Molecular Entities in various disease areas.

Thus, to answer to ‘Quo Vadis, Pharmaceutical R&D’, I reckon, ‘Open Innovation’ model  could well be an important direction for tomorrow’s global R&D initiatives to improve access to innovative affordable Medicines to a larger number of ailing patients of the world, meeting their unmet medical needs, more effectively and with greater care.

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.