September 18, 2008

CSIR initiative to develop low-cost TB medicines

The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research on Monday launched a new initiative to develop low cost drugs for infectious diseases like tuberculosis that afflict mainly the poor in India and other developing countries. Big pharmaceutical companies do not spare much resources for these for want of adequate returns.

The initiative is in the form of a web portal, which would provide a platform for researchers in the academia, industry and institutes across the world to share their knowledge and ideas and conduct collaborative research on a voluntary basis.

The ‘open source drug discovery’ programme draws its inspiration from the success of the open source movements in software and the Human Genome Sequencing Project. The website is based on the popular Wiki-based model and is designed to enable anyone to contribute or modify content in a collaborative mode. The ideas will be reviewed by experts and the contributors can get certificates and even monetary rewards if their contributions prove useful.

The initiative makes use of the recent developments in bioinformatics, which have enabled research to identify potential drugs by comparing on computer, potential disease targets against large chemical databases. The website will host different types of data on the pathogens and the various tools needed for data analysis. Further, it will have a discussion forum for members to share ideas.

Launching the programme, Union Minister for Science and Technology Kapil Sibal said a core committee of expert scientists would monitor the process closely. The discovery of new potential drugs would be in the public domain, thus precluding any monopoly.

He said the CSIR in collaboration with international philanthropic agencies such as Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation would then provide resources to conduct clinical trials and other such steps required to bring the medicines to the market place. The potential drugs would be made generic as soon as they were discovered to ensure that the drug prices were kept low.

The programme would initially focus on tuberculosis, since though it was a leading cause of death from bacterial infection in the world, no major advancement in treatment had emerged over the past half a century, particularly since market forces discouraged big pharma firms from developing drugs for such diseases as they had a long gestation period, heavy research and development costs and low returns.

According to the World Health Organisation one-third of the world’s population was currently infected with TB. The estimated incidence of the disease in India was 1.8 million new cases annually and 3,70,00 deaths occurred due to it every year, making it an average of two deaths every three minutes.

Addressing a press conference after the launch, CSIR Director General Samir Brahmachari said the website would be open to all – scientists, researchers, academicians, doctors, software professionals, traditional healers, and industry. Even lay persons, who had some useful idea or the other to contribute could share them on the website. “A bright IIT student could get some ideas. He just needs to open his computer sitting in his hostel room and post his or her ideas on the website.”

Among others, the Global Research Alliance, which comprises government and non-profit research organisations around the world, Jawaharlal Nehru University, University of Hyderabad, Delhi University, Sun Microsystems, TCG Lifesciences and LeadInvent Technologies have already extended their support for the programme, he added.

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