Open, Sesame? Can Open R&D Really Work?

You are here: Home » Industry Buzz » Open, Sesame? Can Open R&D Really Work?

When I attended BIO this last summer in Boston, as usual I made sure to attend the Ernst & Young presentation of Beyond Borders, their annual review of the state of the biotechnology industry. This year they presented their concept of HOLNets –holistic open learning networks. It is an all-encompassing, collaborative, paradigm shift to address how to get quality drugs in the hands of patients (in large and small affected disease populations) faster and with a lower price tag (due to those pesky R&D costs for successes as well as the failed leads).

Holistic: Bringing patients and practitioners on-board much earlier in the process and capturing their contributions in a way that drug developers can use in a more “real time” fashion to get the product “right” faster.

Open: “..Make R&D radically more efficient and productive, by reducing redundant expenditures and allowing researchers to learn from each other’s insights and mistakes.”

Learning: “..Rapidly, in real time, by connecting data from across the ecosystem..”

Networks: Engaging everyone in the healthcare value chain- research to marketing to patients.

As I listened to the presentation, I immediately made the leap to open source in the IT world (look at the success of Linux and Mozilla Firefox). The big unfortunate difference of course: the monetary costs of development for each field. I admit, I left thinking- “Great idea- never happen.”

But it has continued to come back to the front of my mind during different conversations with colleagues. Then, in the October issue of Glamour (yes, that is correct I am referencing a fashion magazine) Shaun Dreisbach’s article “7 Things No One Ever Tells You About Breast Cancer” discussed the field of cancer research, specifically some of the flaws and challenges- one of which being- it’s easier to study treatments than find a cure. “And researchers get funding and tenure by publishing papers, not looking for a cure.” Fran Visco, President of the National Breast Cancer Coalition, discussed the need for more collaboration – an all hands on deck approach. There it was – the call for Holistic Open Learning Networks.

I get the need and the value, but I just keep wondering: Can the scientific community evolve quickly enough to meet the needs of the biotech and pharmaceutical industries?

Let’s face it- those industries are heavily entrenched in the tenets of the academic, scientific mindset even if many have been working hard to cobble that with the tenets of the start-up, entrepreneurial, technology culture that we’ve come to know since the 90’s and the dotcom bubble.

Fast forward to this morning when I read Stephanie Sutton’s article in, “GSK Encourages Open Innovation and R&D.” GSK is making public a 200 compound library targeting tuberculosis, funding its Open Lab laboratory in Spain so that independent researchers can access GSK facilities, and creating a system the “will provide researchers with access to detailed anonymised patient-level data and discontinued investigational medicines…. (so that) researchers will be able to examine the trial data more closely or combine data from different studies for further research.”

Sir Mark Walport, Director of the Wellcome Trust, said: “In its commitment towards more openness and collaboration, GSK is setting an example of how the pharmaceutical industry must adapt to help drive forward medical advances. Real breakthroughs do not come out of nowhere, but are borne of scientists sharing their knowledge and learning from each other.”

Hmmmm- could it really happen?

~ Susan Foertsch


Ernst & Young. (2012). Beyond Borders: Global Biotechnology Report 2012.

Dreisbach,S. (2012, October). 7 Things No One Ever Tells You About Breast Cancer. Glamour, 169-179.

Sutton.S. (15 October 2012). GSK Encourages Open Innovation and R&D.

GSK Press Release. 11 October 2012. GSK announces further initiatives to advance openness and collaboration to help tackle global health challenges.

Comments are closed.