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Open source approach puts malaria on notice

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According to the World Malaria Report 2014, there were an estimated 198 million cases of malaria worldwide in 2013, and an estimated 584,000 deaths. Tragically 437,000 of these were African children who did not reach their fifth birthday.

In response, the World Health Organisation (WHO), which authored the report, put a call out to the global health community for further investment into programs to combat malaria, particularly to target gaps in prevention and treatment. Current treatments exist but they can be expensive, often do not reach those in need, and may not work. For many treatments, parasitic resistance is also building. New drug discovery is therefore critical, compelling researchers to adopt innovative approaches.

Last July, Share featured a story, Opening new ways to treat Malaria, about an open source drug discovery project called Open Source Malaria (OSM). Through open collaboration, the project extends research by providing mechanisms for data sharing and reuse, all done in real time. Now a year on, OSM's team lead Professor Matthew Todd says the project is making progress.

"We're now working on molecules that are very promising – the current set are able to cure a mouse of a form of malaria, so the molecules can wage their war on the parasite inside an animal, which is a major step forward."

Open Science posterObviously, defeating malaria is not a trivial venture. Many challenges exist. Significant amongst these is gaining physical samples of molecules for evaluation. Here the open source approach comes into its own. Through innovative thinking and sound course design, an exciting collaboration has emerged with a group of high-achieving chemistry undergraduates at the University of Sydney.

Alice Williamson, Postdoctoral Research Associate, developed a new component of the 'Special Studies Program' in Chemistry. Along with Professors Adam Bridgeman and Peter Rutledge, Williamson designed a set of experiments in line with OSM's focus on the set of "very promising" molecules to which Todd refers.

Several new molecules were synthesised by the students with the aim of creating new antimalarial compounds. Their project work and experiences were captured in open lab notebooks and videos, and what they discovered was incorporated back into the OSM data pool. The outcomes in terms of drug discovery are still unknown since the compounds are undergoing biological evaluation. If the results are good, these molecules will progress to further biological assessment and hopefully from there to testing in humans.

The OSM consortium's history with non-traditional crowd-sourced collaborations is characteristic of the project. Students from Sydney Grammar School and a group of 40 undergraduate Lawrence University (USA) students, working from their own labs, have also made new molecules and evaluated them for activity against the malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum.

As Williamson notes, this could scale. "One can imagine lab courses based around current needs in any open source drug discovery and development project, meaning we could, with proper mentorship, bring to bear very large levels of skilled human resource to tackle actual project needs, with global coordination between cohorts."

"It's a win-win situation. Students learn research skills and an appreciation for organic chemistry, whilst tackling a real problem."

Professor Todd is equally optimistic. "It remains a particular goal for the future to engage scientists in the consortium from malaria endemic areas," he says.

"Traditionally this has always been a problem of logistics and money, but the open source approach has the best shot of involving researchers from endemic areas as equal collaborators. After all, because we share everything, there are no project outsiders".

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