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Sreelatha Menon: Researchers sans borders

Science 2.0 is here as CSIR resorts to open source drug research for TB

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A global net-based project for finding a new drug sets the pace for research into that don't attract big money.

Call it Science 2.0 or merely science without borders. What the Department of Science and Technology (DST) of the government of India has devised to tackle lack of adequate research into drugs for key diseases amounts to just that.

Drugs and diseases are split into haves and have-nots when it comes to attracting funds for research. So, while 399 drugs for treating cancer are under development and a total of 136 drugs are being developed for cardio-vascular conditions, only six drugs have been developed for tuberculosis (TB), which affects a third of the global population. And all of these six drugs were discovered in 50s and 60s. The reason for this is that a poor man’s disease fetches little money and a with a $300-million market does not lure drug companies, which won’t invest anything in a market that is worth less than a billion dollars, say scientists.

So, the DST’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) is resorting to open source drug research for TB through its Open Source Drug Discovery (OSDD) Project. It has created a web-based platform that taps scientists, students and researchers across the world, creating a global laboratory that is as fenceless as a paddy field, as its mentor, Dr Samir Brahmachari, director-general of and former director of Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB), puts it.

The Rs 150-crore project has so far registered 700 participants from 130 cities. About 56 live projects are visible on the site today. One of the key components of the portal is SysBorg (Systems Biology of Organisms), a wiki-based collaborative research environment where ideas can be shared and project results recorded in an open-lab notebook. Today, SysBorg hosts the largest database on Mycobacterium Tuberculosis, the TB bacteria, thanks to the OSDD’s community laboratory.

Dr Anshu Bharadwaj, a scientist at the IGIB, recently published results of one of the projects completed in collaboration with students and researchers from across the country. The project decoded 400 of the 4,000 genes of Mycobacterium Tuberculosis.

A lone researcher can take years to do it, but she, along with 12 students from Vellore, Chennai, New Delhi and Faridabad has already published the findings on the site, which was launched only last September. Now, someone will validate these against various compounds.

Another researcher has published the targets for some of the genes, that is, areas which are to be targeted with compounds to eliminate the bacteria without harming the human host. Yet another project has shortlisted compounds that are to be tested against the biological targets. Normally, these happen in a linear fashion, points out Bharadwaj. But here, everything is happening simultaneously and so the road to success or failure may be shortened, she says.

Projects are being posted by people from institutes ranging from National Institute for Health in the US, Institute of Life Sciences, Hyderabad, to Chennai’s Anna University. There are 56 live projects online attracting students and researchers.

The CSIR now plans to adopt 30 colleges, whose infrastructure will be upgraded and whose students will work on new experiments required for its project, rather than repeating the experiments being done at their colleges for decades.

The CSIR is thrilled at the prospect of creating a new generation of trained research manpower. Before many of these researchers complete their graduation, they would have publications in their name, some a gene in their name, and so on.

Science can’t get younger than that.

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