A growing trend in collaborative health research is creating potentially life-saving global partnerships between pharmaceutical companies, academic researchers, disease advocates, and even the general public, who are drawn into the world of science through “crowd-sourcing”.
Dwindling money for research and development (R&D) and waning donor patience have forced global health players to change how they innovate new products and processes.
“For years, pharmaceutical companies and research institutes… have contributed to fighting neglected tropical diseases, but often independently or through smaller partnerships,” said Don Joseph, CEO of the California-based NGO, BIO Ventures for Global Health, which encourages biotechnology firms to develop drugs, vaccines and diagnostics for neglected diseases.
Finding an elusive disease solution independently could mean individual glory, but also long-term research and development commitments and higher financial risk. “Generally, drug development is expensive, takes a long time, and most things don’t work,” Joseph said.
“The challenge is to create projects that are simple and allow a streamlined process for organizations to participate,” Joseph told IRIN. “[Open innovation partnerships could] significantly reduce trial and error, and lead neglected disease researchers to that ‘Eureka’ moment more quickly and effectively.”
Partners - who might once have been competitors - are increasingly sharing expertise, intellectual property and financing. Henry Chesbrough, executive director of the Program in Open Innovation at the University of California, coined the term “open innovation” in 2003 to describe this shift.
|The prevailing logic was...if you want to get something done, do it yourself.|
“The prevailing logic was… if you want something done, do it yourself,” Chesbrough said in 2011.“This new logic of open innovation turns that completely on its head.”
Researchers are realizing that in the race to discover the next big cure, strength lies in numbers. “Competitive advantage now comes from having more people working with you than with anyone else,” Chesbrough said.
Global health initiatives
“We have been encouraged by the willingness of industry to consider and participate creatively in open innovation initiatives for neglected diseases and other devastating illnesses,” said Joseph.
The Re:Search project, a partnership launched in 2011 between BIO Ventures and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), which comprises 185 UN member states, calls for a more global interpretation of intellectual property to spur health innovation and development, and the collaboration of biotechnology firms, pharmaceutical companies and academia.
For example, the project will make it easier for a researcher in Tanzania to connect with pharmaceutical giants for additional biomedical information, resources and detailed product know-how, Joseph said. Such information has often been carefully guarded because of intellectual property rights, but transparency between partners will be the key.
To meet health challenges more quickly and with tight budgets, more organizations are turning to “crowd-sourcing” competitions to outsource innovation to the general public.
InnoCentive began hosting global health challenges in 2006, linking organizations looking for solutions with problem-solvers who can earn tens of thousands of dollars. The organizations give prizes for winning solutions in return for the intellectual property rights.
In 2008, a challenge by the Global Alliance for TB Drug Development (TB Alliance) to simplify the manufacturing processes of an advanced-stage tuberculosis drug earned the two winning problem-solvers US$20,000 each for their ideas.
Nokia, an electronics company, recently partnered with the California-based educational NGO, X Prize Foundation, to offer $2.25 million to encourage the innovative use of digital tools, particularly mobile health applications.
"This competition will enable us to realize the full potential of mobile sensing devices, leading to advances in… [the] technology, which can play a major role in transforming the lives of billions of people around the world," said Nokia’s executive vice president and chief technology officer, Henry Tirri. Sensing technologies detect disease and measure health indicators like temperature and blood pressure.
Product development partnerships
In the 1990s, decades before crowd-sourcing was applied to humanitarian response, product-development partnerships (PDPs) tried to accelerate the development of technologies to fight TB, AIDS, malaria, and neglected diseases.
The TB Alliance, a PDP launched in 2000, says there are more than 140 partnerships projects either being developed or in the process of investigating drugs, diagnostics, and vaccines for neglected diseases.
Among these, the GAVI Alliance, formerly known as the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, aims to get more vaccines to poorer countries, and the European Union’s Innovative Medicines Initiative is developing new drugs and tests for diseases, including tuberculosis.
Open innovation partnerships can take a variety of forms, but in product development, partners with differing expertise, financing and motives can mean clashing agendas. Historically, product development has been driven by market incentives, which include maintaining intellectual property rights, but new partnerships are proceeding without these guarantees.
“We have had nothing but positive, eager interactions between members [of the WIPO project],” said Joseph. “The perceived barrier of intellectual property as a brake on collaboration in drug and vaccine development is, in our view, exaggerated.”
Open innovation is still a new commercial approach to partnerships for global health, Joseph noted. “Right now, open innovation seems to be working well to speed the development of new products, but we’re in the very early stages of these projects. Time will tell.”