Medicine needs to embrace open source

The expensive and abusive pharmaceutical industry needs to open up to improve everyone's health.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

In 2015, Pfizer researchers discovered its rheumatoid arthritis drug, Enbrel, seemed to reduce the risk of Alzheimer's by 64%. The company buried the results and didn't follow up.

Why? Because the statistical results, which lead to the conclusion that Enbrel might help with Alzheimer's, didn't meet "rigorous scientific standards." Why not publish the results for others to study? Because Pfizer believed it would lead others down a wrong path.

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Other medical and pharmaceutical researchers believe Pfizer should have released the data. As The Washington Post, which broke the story, reported: "It would benefit the scientific community to have that data out there," said Keenan Walker, a Johns Hopkins assistant professor of medicine who studies Alzheimer's. "Whether it was positive data or negative data, it gives us more information to make better informed decisions."


Now, I know little about creating and testing drugs. Here's what I do know: Open source and data produces better results than proprietary methods. 

In technology, the field I know best, almost every company -- including open source poster-child enemy Microsoft -- has embraced open source. Why? Because it works better than the short-sighted proprietary approaches.

It's not just programming that benefits from open source. Cars now run Linux under the hood. Energy and electricity transmission managers are moving to open source. Most of the movies you love are made with open-source programs. Heck, even contract law is going open source.

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I'm far from the only one to conclude that open-source methods are needed to break what amounts to broken pharmaceutical research methodology and drug price gouging. Open Source Pharma, an organization devoted to building on existing initiatives to develop an alternative, comprehensive, open-source pharmaceutical system, is leading the way.

Dr. Manica Balasegaram, executive director for the Access Campaign of Médecins Sans Frontières, aka Doctors Without Borders, explained:

There is something rotten in the kingdom of biomedical R&D . . . That the system is inefficient is probably difficult to dispute. It works in silos, encourages a protectionist, proprietary approach, promotes duplication, multiplies failure, is costly, and importantly, is directed at markets and not at public health needs. The consequences are fatal.

While it's tempting to villainize Pfizer, which announced in 2018 it was ending all its efforts to develop new Alzheimer's drugs because they weren't "promising" [read profitable] enough, it is just taking advantage of a broken patent system that rewards broken, proprietary intellectual property (IP) methods. 

As Balasegaram said, "We need to fundamentally let go of thinking that there is only one possible business model. We need alternatives. Open source R&D is the key."

Since the biomedical field is dominated by big companies with an iron grip on IP, Balasegaram admitted: "Promoting the concept of sharing will be tough. Sharing, however, is a difficult and somewhat scary idea to promote. It sounds suspiciously 'radical.' However, when one takes into account that this has been done in other areas, we need to rethink our reservations."

Open source can revolutionize our hunt for better, more affordable medicine. It has everywhere else. It can in medicine, too.

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