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Health Commons launched

Science Commons, in its relentless drive for product line expansion (I kid because I love), has posted a white paper proposing a Health Commons. In it, the authors, Marty Tenenbaum and John Wilbanks, lay out the problems and suggest a solution.

They write:

We are no longer asking whether a gene or a molecule is critical to a particular biological process; rather, we are discovering whole networks of molecular and cellular interactions that contribute to disease. And soon, we will have such information about individuals, rather than the population as a whole. Biomedical knowledge is exploding, and yet the system to capture that knowledge and translate it into saving human lives still relies on an antiquated and risky strategy of focusing the vast resources of a few pharmaceutical companies on just a handful of disease targets.

After citing more problems with the current system, the authors propose a Health Commons:

Imagine a virtual marketplace or ecosystem where participants share data, knowledge, materials and services to accelerate research. The components might include databases on the results of chemical assays, toxicity screens, and clinical trials; libraries of drugs and chemical compounds; repositories of biological materials (tissue samples, cell lines, molecules), computational models predicting drug efficacies or side effects, and contract services for high- throughput genomics and proteomics, combinatorial drug screening, animal testing, biostatistics, and more. The resources offered through the Commons might not necessarily be free, though many could be. However, all would be available under standard pre-negotiated terms and conditions and with standardized data formats that eliminate the debilitating delays, legal wrangling and technical incompatibilities that frustrate scientific collaboration today.

The paper emphasizes the need for metadata standards: “Providing such standards, Heath Commons improves and extends the public domain by
integrating hundreds of public databases into a single framework…” The Commons also provides the needed “social and legal infrastructure,” and a portal that provides the right set of services.

They hope that by lowering research costs, some of the 5,000 tropical diseases currently “uneconomical to address,” for example, will become the target of pharmaceutical R&D. “Health Commons makes it cost effective for small groups of researchers to conduct industrial scale R&D on rare diseases by exploiting the economies of scale afforded by an ecosystem of shared knowledge…”

The authors see the benefits going beyond the Commons’ value to non-profits. “Every pharmaceutical company sits on a wealth of promising targets and leads that they won’t develop themselves.”

The Health Commons could be a huge step forward. But it will take some work. “To realize the full potential, existing companies need to rethink their business models to leverage the commons.” As an example, the paper points out that “Only six out of the 1800 biotechnology companies funded since 1980 have made more money than was cumulatively invested in them.” Rather than counting striking it rich with proprietary drugs discovered via proprietary R&D platforms, perhaps companies could profit by opening up their platforms and taking a cut of any drugs discovered with them.

Finally, Health Commons will provide a way to continuously publish research, along with comments, to supplement the traditional publishing model.

Health Commons can and should be a big deal. It requires lots of pieces coming together over time, but its acknowledgment of the role of profit is encouraging, and it is in the hands of serious, committed, and wickedly smart people. [Tags: ]

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