Opening up Malaria Research

LONDON – In recent years, tremendous progress has been made in the battle against malaria. According to the World Health Organization, the number of deaths from the disease has fallen by a staggering 60% since 2000 – the result of improved access to diagnostic testing and treatment.

To be sure, there is still considerable work to be done, but the downward trend in new infections and deaths underscores the power of collaboration among governments (in malaria endemic and non-endemic countries alike), between commercial and non-profit organizations, and between academic science and medicine. Without such partnerships, advances in fighting this deadly disease would not have been possible. Alongside coordinated action on the ground, increasing openness and collaboration among scientists researching and developing a new generation of medicines and vaccines is paving the way for further progress.

There is a growing recognition within the scientific community that no single organization or group has the know-how or resources to tackle malaria alone. As with many other diseases afflicting the developing world, the science is hugely complex, and the commercial opportunity is limited. Reversing the tide on malaria requires us to pool resources and combine the diverse experience and expertise of scientists from different backgrounds and specialties.

Fortunately, scientists are already taking note, and the result is the emergence and spread of a disruptive new approach to research and development. Called “open innovation,” it turns the traditional R&D model on its head and removes barriers to collaboration. Based on the recognition that the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts, open innovation is a collegial way of working, in which sharing is everything.

This openness is well illustrated by unprecedented levels of data sharing. In 2010, GSK, the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation, and the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, released into the public domain the details of more than 20,000 compounds that are active against the malaria parasite – 13,500 of which came from GSK’s proprietary compound library. This was a landmark move, one intended to galvanize the international research community.

Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV), a non-profit organization, took things a step further. Through the “open access malaria box,” MMV provides physical access to a diverse selection of 400 commercially available compounds. Access is free for scientists around the world, as long as they agree to make the results of their research public. To date, the malaria box has been shared with more than 250 research groups in 30 countries around the world, and has led to the initiation of several new drug- discovery programs across a range of neglected diseases.

In addition to facilitating the sharing of tools and insights, open research creates frameworks for scientists from different institutions and backgrounds to work together (both physically and remotely), draw on each other’s strengths, and exchange know-how.

One example of this type of collaboration is the world’s first “open lab” for research into diseases of the developing world, established in 2010 at GSK’s research site in Tres Cantos, Spain. The lab operates with the support and advice of a broad range of actors, including GSK, the Wellcome Trust, the European Union, and MMV, as well as various other product-development partnerships and academic centers. It enables researchers from leading institutions worldwide to work alongside industry scientists in a dynamic and collaborative environment, with the aim of transforming early research ideas into drug-discovery programs.

With 60 projects completed since its establishment, this initiative has gained wide recognition as an incubator for new ideas and a valuable model for R&D into treatments for other major health challenges. Other intensely collaborative R&D initiatives are also bearing fruit. Three potential new treatments for malaria being developed by GSK (two in partnership with MMV) are progressing to clinical trials.

Another potential new drug being developed through a collaboration between GSK and MMV, for vivax malaria, is further along in the development process, having entered the final stages of clinical trials. If successful, it will be the first treatment for relapsing malaria approved in more than 60 years.

Moreover, last year, regulators gave the green light to GSK’s malaria vaccine. A world first, it is the culmination of three decades of research and unprecedented levels of collaboration between GSK, the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative, and prominent African research centers.

But while we have good reason to be encouraged by recent progress, we must not become complacent in our efforts to defeat malaria. Each positive statistic is balanced by the stark reality that there are still around 200 million cases of malaria each year, killing nearly 500,000 people, the vast majority of whom are children under the age of five.

With the establishment of a strong, collaborative research community and the increasingly free flow of knowledge, we are now better placed than ever to step up our efforts, and to encourage others to follow suit. In an area where commercial gains are limited, but the potential for vastly improving the health and economies of entire countries is enormous, scientists must continue to break down silos and collaborate for the global good.