Opening up malaria drug discovery

2016
Dr Jeremy Burrows,VP, Head of Drug Discovery, MMV

To drive the elimination and eradication of malaria, there is an urgent need for novel compounds, active against the various stages of the malaria parasite lifecycle, to be discovered and developed.

To make the discovery and progression of exciting compounds more efficient, rapid and cost effective, MMV has pioneered new, more open and collaborative ways of working.

Dr Jeremy Burrows, Vice President, Head of Drug Discovery, MMV, explains MMV’s open approach to drug discovery.

1. Research can be conducted with varying degrees of openness, as described in the margin. How would you define MMV’s approach to drug discovery?

MMV’s approach is Open Innovation. At one end you have the ‘cathedral approach’ that is secret and siloed, at the other end everything is laid bare – information, compounds and biological tools. MMV’s approach lies between the two. Over the years we have built up a community that shares data and assays among a set (or subsets) of partners for a given project or projects. These Open Innovation projects are not transparent to the outside world, rather they operate within contractual ‘bubbles’, with a semi-permeable membrane securing confidentiality.

2. What are the advantages of this approach?

Risk, cost and effort are shared among the partners. We delude ourselves if we think we are the best and only we can deliver. Through collaboration we can do so much more than we can alone. Since 2010, our collaborations have delivered 17 candidate molecules for malaria – this has created a strong pipeline, but it’s still not strong enough to deliver the medicines we need to defeat malaria. To achieve our mission, we continue to enlarge our partnership network and in turn the quality of compounds in the pipeline.
The confidentiality membrane allows for the key partner to generate intellectual property and file a patent. This potential can be a strong incentive for pharmaceutical partners to get involved, as well as allowing us and our partners to help guarantee the quality of the clinical trials and final product. New partners have access to all the valuable assays and expertise available, which helps minimize duplication.

3. Are there any challenges?

Open innovation can only function with an extremely competent business development and legal group. They need to be extremely flexible to induce partners to join but also sufficiently uncompromising, in terms of accountability and alignment with MMV’s mission, to develop affordable medicines for vulnerable populations. At MMV we are fortunate to have that. Also, as we rely on donor funds we set annual budgets which means if a project doesn’t make the grade we must be ruthless and terminate it.
In response to various challenges, variations of the open model are being tried and tested. In one example, working with Dr Mat Todd at the University of Sydney in Australia, we have completely broken the membrane and made everything open.

4. How does this open source initiative work and what have you learnt so far?

Essentially, everything related to the project is in the public domain, such that anyone anywhere can follow and contribute. The idea is that it will work by ‘natural selection’ – anyone can take what’s there and over time there will be evolution, in this case, delivery.
We have learnt that there is a huge amount of goodwill and so intellectual input, but fundamentally money and resources are still rate limiting. If people don’t make compounds you get stuck. We believe in open source – but it needs to be resourced. Intention is also critical. You need to be clear on what you are setting out to achieve and direct the project accordingly.

How does this open source initiative work and what have you learnt so far? Essentially, everything related to the project is in the public domain, such that anyone anywhere can follow and contribute. The idea is that it will work by ‘natural selection’ – anyone can take what’s there and over time there will be evolution, in this case, delivery.

We have learnt that there is a huge amount of goodwill and so intellectual input, but fundamentally money and resources are still rate limiting. If people don’t make compounds you get stuck. We believe in open source – but it needs to be resourced. Intention is also critical. You need to be clear on what you are setting out to achieve and direct the project accordingly.


View our glossary for definitions of Open Science, Open Access, Open Innovation, Open Source, and more.