Open source research techniques can revolutionize medicine


What happens when Facebook meets medicine? And I’m not talking about poking your doctor when you want an appointment. What happens if all of a sudden, instead of pharmaceutical companies hiding their recipes behind closed doors and keeping their active compounds a closely guarded secret, they were to share?

This is exactly what Jay Bradner, a researcher at Harvard and the Dana Farber Institute in Boston, did. When his lab discovered a compound that showed promise against pancreatic cancer and other solid tumors, he asked himself the question: “What would a pharmaceutical company do at this point?” And he did the opposite. Instead of keeping it a secret, he sent the compound out to researchers around the world, who sent back their findings. Instead of keeping his success in house, as a secret until he could patent a product, he created the most competitive research environment possible for his lab.

There is a lesson here. From evolution to cell phones to arm wrestling, it’s clear that competition breeds innovation. In fact, this is the very foundation of capitalism. Then why do we allow organizations to hide their secrets behind layers of copyrights and hordes of lawyers? The answer is simple: money. Without profits, corporations can’t invest in research and provide the cutting edge products the public desires. However, there is something wrong with this system. If we truly care about human well-being for ourselves and others, we need to care about health. And we need a system that provides the best possible health at the lowest cost. Sounds like an oxymoron, right? Wrong.

Everyone agrees healthcare needs reform, but: surprise!: no one agrees on what changes need to be made. I say, forget all the rhetoric and political posturing and take a leaf from Jay Bradner’s book. Open source. Make all research done by non-military institutions free and open to scientists around the world. Tweet your data, post your thoughts, and ask your colleagues in Zimbabwe if they have had similar results while transplanting stem cells into salamanders. Bring science into the realm of social media.

Already this is happening. Sites like Research Gate give users a place to talk about data, publish results and consult other scientists in hundreds of disciplines. NCBI and the UCBI genome browsers freely provide millions of dollars worth of research to the public. But this is not enough.

In order to truly make scientific research collaborative, we need to change the business model behind medicine. Currently, I can’t blame corporations for hiding their secrets, because it can cost $800 million or more to bring a drug to market. With that kind of investment, a company needs immense copyright protection and the hordes of lawyers to enforce it. With investment on such a scale, medicine will never be cheap.

But there is an answer. Unfortunately, I don’t know it. But I do know that by sharing, by giving research freely to those with the materials and backgrounds to provide new insights, we can do groundbreaking work in a cheaper and more efficient manner. But we need the government to sign on.

This is a new age: the age of information, and, perhaps more accurately, the age of sharing information.  In fact, to 3,000 people in Sweden who belong to the Church of Kopimism, information sharing is sacred. Yet we are still mired in 20th century copyright laws, still held back by antiquated business models that have failed to adapt to piracy and the vast spread of individual social media.

Perhaps last Wednesday was a turning point. Wikipedia and 10,000 other sites blacked out to protest SOPA, and the next day, under the combined mass of millions of internet users, Congress failed to be bought by corporations seeking to regain a stranglehold on the flow of information. Perhaps Wednesday was the first day that Congress realized how powerful social media has become, and maybe, just maybe, they’ll take the hint and begin developing new social structures that work with and not against the immense power of information sharing technology.