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Open Source Science Explores Malaria Drugs


Stephen Luntz

Stephen has a science degree with a major in physics, an arts degree with majors in English Literature and History and Philosophy of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication.

Freelance Writer

mosquito at sunset

An open source science project may make the sun go down on malaria. mycteria/Shutterstock

The results of a world-first collaboration applying open source tools to drug discovery have been published. Although the drugs have the potential to prevent malaria transmission, the authors have decided to set this particular group of molecules aside in favor of more promising lines of research. Nevertheless, they are hailing the work as a breakthrough for new ways of finding treatments for diseases that pharmaceutical companies ignore.

Malaria kills an estimated 400,000 people each year. Soon the toll may be higher still. Evidence is emerging of resistance to artemisinin-based drugs, currently the primary defense against the parasite.


Sadly, diseases of the tropics attract little research funding from the governments of wealthy nations, and even less from drug manufacturers. Professor Matthew Todd of the University of Sydney leads a group of scientists who decided it was time for a different model, and found inspiration in open source software collaborations.

The first results have been published in ACS Central Science, describing work on drug molecules developed by GlaxoSmithKline that were released into the public domain when the pharmaceutical giant decided they were unlikely to prove profitable. For the new work, 50 researchers from 21 institutions created more than 100 molecules that resembled the originals and then tested their malaria-fighting potential.

Todd told IFLScience that many of the molecules were found to be very effective at preventing the transmission of the malaria parasite from blood cells back to mosquitoes. Despite the potential to break the disease cycle, the project was put aside, as the molecules showed poor solubility and had an unfeasibly short lifespan.

 “Others are welcome to carry on,” Todd said. “But we decided other avenues had better prospects.”


Abandoning work on these molecules does not mean giving up on either malaria research or open source, however. The publication is on the first series of drugs tried, Todd told IFLScience. “We finished active research on that a few years ago, but it took some time to write up and fill some data holes.” Work is now underway on series four, which Todd says is “very active in terms of the number of people participating. We've done testing on mice, which is looking very promising.”

The series one work may not be wasted either, as the nature of the open source project means that any scientist who decides to take it up will have access to all the available information on where the best prospects lie.

However, its primary achievement is demonstrating the capacity for teams around the world with a commitment to avoid patents to collaborate using open laboratory software, social media, and other tools of the Internet age.

The Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative is proving non-profit models can take medicines from the laboratory to widespread use cheaply enough to reach the people who need them. If Todd's work can do the same for the earlier stages of drug development, the number of lives saved could be measured in the tens of millions.


Todd said it's “not healthy to not have a competing method and ideology” to drug development for profit. “We know there are things the pharmaceutical industry can’t do – it's why we don’t have drugs for Ebola and Zika. The alternative is to be radically transparent.”


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