GlaxoSmithKline has not shied away from discussing the progress we've made towards finding preventative measures and treatments for neglected tropical diseases such as malaria. We've also been quite vocal about our intention to stimulate new research in this area through open innovation. As the latest step in our commitment, today we have published new research in Nature. It is a seminal piece of work identifying promising potential leads to develop new medicines to treat malaria. The research comes from a year-long screening of more than 2 million compounds in GSK's chemical library to seek out those that could inhibit the parasite, P. falciparum, the most deadly strain the malaria.
I believe the Nature editorial comment describing GSK's decision to place this information in the public domain as "momentous" is very close to the mark. It is certainly a big step for GSK to have reached this milestone as part of our commitment to open innovation in this area. I think it is also momentous as it could mark a change in how we approach research for neglected diseases. We hope other pharmaceutical companies and institutions will follow our lead.
Malaria is a devastating disease. Every 30 seconds a child dies from malaria, and in 2009, there were 243 million cases reported causing nearly one million deaths, mostly among African children. The best available treatment - particularly against P. falciparum - is a combination of drugs known as artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs). There are no effective alternatives to artemisinins for the treatment of malaria either on the market or nearing the end of the drug development process. Medicines that are used are inadequate for treatment and are dogged by problems of resistance.
There is a long road ahead in drug discovery, but GSK hopes that by putting 13,500 'hits' from our screens that may have potential activity against malaria into the public domain, both online and available free of charge, we can stimulate new ideas and approaches that could lead to better treatments. Specifically, the data will be available on three Web sites commonly used by researchers. Realistically, only a small percentage of these compounds may prove fruitful, which is characteristic of the whole nature of drug discovery. The compounds might suggest a new way to target the malaria parasite, or they could just help in identifying a metabolic pathway that could be altered to negatively impact the malaria parasite.
What is certain is that GSK does not have all the ideas and that is why this is such an exciting step. I hope that sharing this data will create a wave of interest and activity that will set us on the path to finding new treatments. It would give us all immense satisfaction for the next treatment to come from these 13,500 hits but if it doesn't, it may well come from their legacy of a new way of working which will have enormous benefits to society.
Photo courtesy of Alfonso Esteban.