India marathon mapping TB bug

doi:10.1038/nindia.2010.43 Published online 9 April 2010

Hundreds of scientists gathered in the Indian capital today to develop an online gene map for Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the TB causing bug. The massive exercise could help make cheaper drugs to cure the infectious disease that kills over 3.5 lakh people in India annually, experts say.

As part of the Open Source Drug Discovery (OSDD) initiative of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), young scientists are aiming to complete the gene map in a marathon three days and make an announcement to the effect on Sunday (April 11, 2010).

"In three months, our 'Connect to Decode' (C2D) programme has re-annotated the biological and genetic information relating to the Mycobacterium tuberculosis (MTb) genome, a critical step towards the discovery of new drugs," CSIR Director General Samir Brahmachari said at the meet.

"This marks the beginning of using the full potential of the open source model for the development of medical technologies and drug discovery for neglected diseases," he said.

OSDD envisages the sourcing of geographically separated scientific manpower and resources towards collectively solving the problem of drug discovery. The project funds 30 research facilities in universities and colleges and interfaces them to experts with existing laboratories.

OSDD allows national and global participation in drug discovery without any confidentiality barrier & thus helps cut costs.

Though the MTb gene was sequenced more than a decade back, no more than 1000 of the nearly 4000 genea have been annotated, Brahmachari said adding that the OSDD project is annotating all possible genes in MTb with interoperable community standards.

The MTb gene map, will be web-based and similar to "Google Earth".

CSIR had invited collaborators for the project in November last year and received very good response as 177 students registered on the OSDD portal within three days. Close to 800 student researchers were part of the project. They have been working on various aspects including pathway annotation, gene ontology annotation, glycomics of MTB, immunome of MTb and the protein structure.

Market forces discourage big pharmaceutical companies from developing drugs for infectious diseases like TB and malaria since such projects have long gestation period, heavy R&D costs and low success rate, Brahmachari rued. Even when successful, the returns were low since these diseases generally afflict the poor. "It would be naive to expect drug discovery for infectious diseases to become a lucrative standard business model," he pointed out.

The open source model, on the other hand, represents an alternate model of drug discovery. It allows national as well as global participation in drug discovery without any confidentiality barrier and thus helps cut costs. Confidentiality and IPR protection increase cost and decrease free knowledge sharing of drug discovery, he said, citing the human genome sequencing initiative and software like Linux as successful open source models.

"However, this does not mean that individual efforts will go unrecognised as the project has a novel credit system for contributors and the web-based data will be 'click wrap' protected to avoid creation of private good from public good," Brahmachari said.

In the OSDD model, every submission by a contributor is given a unique submission ID and all activities across the system are tracked.

India's IT major Infosys is partnering with CSIR to develop the Web 3.0 software application to stitch the map of the TB bug together and to enable its online viewing. Web 3.0, the next level of the World Wide Web, is scheduled to be launched by Infosys mentor N R Narayanamurthy on Sunday.

Among experts present at the meet were OSDD Project Director Zakir Thomas, Paul Cawthorne of Médecins Sans Frontières and Hiroaki Kitano of the Systems Biology Institute, Japan.