Crowdfunding drug discovery

by Angela Herring

During his nine years working in the phar­ma­ceu­tical industry, Michael Pol­lastri learned to pro­tect his research and data with extreme cau­tion. “In the drug industry, every­thing is super secret,” said Pol­lastri, now an asso­ciate pro­fessor of chem­istry and chem­ical biology at North­eastern. “It’s the culture.”

But Pol­lastri said this secrecy model doesn’t work when it comes to curing infec­tious dis­eases such as African sleeping sick­ness and Chagas dis­ease, which affect the poorest mem­bers of the global com­mu­nity but are largely “neglected” by the industry. What’s more, “there’s not enough money going around to spend time on projects in which no one is sharing infor­ma­tion,” Pol­lastri said.

To over­come this problem, Pol­lastri envi­sions a new model for data sharing and drug dis­covery, and he’s turning to crowd­funding to make it happen. He has now launched a cam­paign on Micro­ryza, a crowd­funding plat­form specif­i­cally for sci­ence research, to sup­port the devel­op­ment of this new model, which con­sists of a cen­tral portal for sharing quan­ti­ta­tive data as well as a small amount of funds to sup­port exper­i­mental work by the sci­en­tists involved.

In his own research, Pol­lastri has employed a high-​​throughput screening method to test whether thou­sands of inves­ti­ga­tional drugs could be repur­posed to treat African sleeping sick­ness, which affects 30,000 people each year. But his is just one of a handful of research teams around the world working to fast track a drug devel­op­ment pro­gram for the neglected trop­ical dis­ease and others like it.

“The issue is that everyone is working on their own stuff in par­allel, and there’s not a really good mech­a­nism to cross-​​fertilize projects,” Pol­lastri explained. In response to this chal­lenge, his new data sharing frame­work will allow researchers working on sim­ilar prob­lems to col­lab­o­rate without fear of having their ideas stolen or their intel­lec­tual prop­erty infringed upon.

“It’s not com­pletely releasing the data pub­li­cally, which is what everyone’s afraid of,” Pol­lastri said. “It’s actu­ally releasing data within a group of people who are trusted and have agreed to some inte­gral rules about sharing and about what you can and cannot do with the information.”

In drug dis­covery, Pol­lastri said, there is some­thing called the 90:10 rule. Ninety per­cent of the research dol­lars spent on health­care each year goes toward curing dis­eases that infect 10 per­cent of the world’s pop­u­la­tion. “Or, if you flip that around,” Pol­lastri said, “90 per­cent of the world gets only 10 per­cent of the research focused on it.”

His new model aims to change that.

Originally published in news@Northeastern on October 28, 2013

College of Science