OpenSourceMalaria:Story so far

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This is a human-readable summary of the open source drug discovery for malaria project. A less readable collection of all the relevant data can be found here.

The story so far in the open source drug discovery for malaria project


Last year the Todd lab at The University of Sydney received funding for a pilot project in open source drug discovery from the Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV). The project champion at the outset was Tim Wells. Jeremy Burrows came on board and led the suggestion to go after a few of the actives that had been placed in the public domain in 2010 by GlaxoSmithKline and others. Work got underway in the lab in August 2011. The team were successful in securing further funding from an Australian Research Council Linkage grant - a scheme where funds from an external agency are matched by the Australian Government. This has generated funding from May 2012 for three years.

The scientific idea behind the project is familiar medicinal chemistry methodology - the aim is to find a small molecule that is effective for the treatment of malaria, and that involves generating molecules (the Todd lab's primary responsibility) and evaluating them (with other members of the project). Based on the biological results, analogs are made, or the series might be ditched and another one selected. The first series to be tried is based on an arylpyrrole that was one of the most attractive hits in the original GSK dataset, but there are plenty of other series that are also very attractive from a medchem perspective.

The difference with this project though (as described in the 6 Laws) is that everything is open, meaning all the experiments go on the web (including the ones that did not turn out well). All the data are available. Anyone can do anything they wish with the compounds, with the proviso the project is cited (see licence conditions below). The main difference is that anyone can take part - people may make molecules, offer guidance and input in other ways that change the direction of the project as it is happening, i.e. rather than the release of all data at the end of the project, data are released as the project is happening so that people can become genuinely involved in the research. Thus the iterative cycle of analog synthesis in response to biological data that is normally guided by luck and medchem intuition is now guided by the intuition of the collective. Similarly, since the biological data are all open too, it should be easier to form an objective assessment of a molecule's performance divorced from the judgement of those closest to the compounds. In the same way that in software development "with enough eyeballs all bugs are shallow" the open nature of the research makes the science better and faster. This was found to be the case in a previous synthetic chemistry project involving the drug praziquantel.

Two Rounds of Synthesis and Evaluation

Paul Ylioja started by resynthesising the two known active compounds from the GSK set (OSM-S-5 and OSM-S-6), plus a few simple derivatives, and confirming that they were active. The current list of all the compounds made thus far in this part of the project is kept in this spreadsheet. The biological evaluation was carried out by three separate labs (Vicky Avery, Stuart Ralph and the original GSK Tres Cantos Lab led by Javier Gamo) to ensure a solid footing of repeatability. The original compounds contained an ester which was thought likely to hydrolyze in vivo, so various versions of the "lower half" of these leads were also evaluated to check whether the original hits were prodrugs, but all these compounds were found to be inactive. The project champion from MMV, Paul Willis, recommended a few "near neighbor" compounds that also looked interesting, and a number of these were made too and evaluated in this first round. One compound, OSM-S-9, was found to be more active than the original GSK hits. Sanjay Batra came on board the project and his student Soumya made (and is making)some analogs varying in the position of the fluorine atom, though the activity of those tested to date is low. (Sanjay works at the CDRI in Lucknow, India, where Saman Habib also works - Saman is leading the Indian OSDDm project which will hopefully get started soon). The outcome was that the original hits remained interesting (because of their reasonable potency and logP values) but that highly potent novel antimalarials were also being generated in this class. Thus a second set of compounds was synthesized and evaluated, giving rise to several new highly potent compounds, one of which (OSM-S-39) displayed a picomolar IC50 value. This is impressive given the small number of compounds made to date, and is testament to the quality of the hits contained in the original GSK set.

Original and Representative Potent Compounds in the Arylpyrrole Series

At this point the decision was taken to take the most promising compounds on to advanced biological evaluation, to see what the promise of this class really is (rather than continue to increase potency through analog synthesis). Evaluations to date are as follows.

  • Metabolic and solubility assays: The two original GSK compounds and six other compounds made in this project were evaluated by Sue Charman's lab at Monash. The raw data are here and can be discussed here. The originals displayed good solubility but moderate degradation rates. The other compounds were degraded more slowly but at a cost of low solubility.
  • hERG: One of the original GSK compounds (OSM-S-5) plus one of the most potent novel compounds identified to date (OSM-S-35) were subjected to the hERG assay and passed, perhaps implying that this class of compounds should not exhibit undesirable cardiac side effects. Discussion page here.
  • Late Stage Gametocyte Assay: Four of the compounds have also been evaluated in a late stage gametocyte assay with very interesting results indicating unusually high activity in blocking the transmission of the parasite. The original GSK compound OSM-S-5 was inactive. Discussion page here.
  • In vivo: However, the two original GSK compounds as well as one of the most promising novel compounds have been evaluated in mice and found to possess zero oral efficacy (Results available here). This result taken with all the other biological data requires careful consideration about whether to change the focus of the research to another series or whether to continue to alter the structures of the best compounds to overcome the in vivo roadblock.

What Are the Compounds Doing?

What might this series of compounds be doing to the parasite to kill it so effectively? It's not clear. The original screens were whole-cell assays, so while it is known that the compounds are effective, it's not known what they are doing in any detail. Iain Wallace from ChEMBL has performed a prediction of the biological role of these compounds (as well as predictions for the whole "Malaria Box", which is a set of compounds MMV are providing to people for antimalarial screening and which are the focus of a current round of Gates requests for proposals). Iain clustered the compounds as a similarity map, allowing visualization of the correlation between structure and predicted activity. Discussed also here. One of the predictions was that the compounds hit an enzyme known as DHODH, and GSK are at the time of writing screening some of the project's compounds against this enzyme. These predictions are made using informatics - a comparison of the structures of our compounds with other known compounds that have known activities. The argument is based on extrapolation. To evaluate whether the prediction is correct, a subset of compounds is being sent to Corey Nislow at the University of Toronto for screening in a yeast-based assay that does not identify for sure what the compounds are doing (which is very difficult) but provides harder biological evidence for a role.

How to Obtain Other Compounds

The original compounds from the GSK assay were commercially available, arising from libraries that are provided to larger companies by smaller specialised companies. In a medicinal chemistry project like this one starts with a set of compounds, then one sources further compounds that are similar. Novel compounds need to be made. Other compounds may be available by other means, however. Typically in academia required compounds are made in-house because academia works as a closed system, which is inefficient if relevant compounds exist elsewhere on the planet and can be sourced by other means more quickly. In this project organic synthesis of novel compounds is currently being performed in Sydney and Lucknow. But for known compounds the following needs to be done.

1) Identification of Commercial Compounds: What if some compounds we require are already commercially available? How can these be found? Iain Wallace was able to do a search of databases such as eMolecules for relevant compounds above a certain threshold of similarity and filter compounds by supplier, generating the "hitlist" quickly and with no manual human input. These can be converted into spreadhseets for quick visualisation - see here for examples on Jimmy Cronshaw's series (see below for these).

2) Obtaining Commercial Compounds: With the compounds identified, the relevant suppliers need to be contacted to ask for donations. That will probably not be trivial since it needs a human interaction. Failing that the compounds can just be bought.

3) Identification of Other/academic Compounds: What about compounds that could be useful to the project but which are not commercially available, e.g. compounds sitting in academic lab fridges? Some can be found using resources like SciFinder, though these require expensive subscriptions. Many compounds that might be perfect for the project may not even be in the published literature, which is another argument for openness in science.

4) Get Other/academic Compounds: This will be a case of manual contact with interested groups. One such enquiry has already been submitted, to see what happens. Naturally contributions are rewarded by possible authorship on resulting papers.

Ultimately, as a species, we are not very efficient at sharing valuable chemical resources. A user-driven list would be helpful - "I need compound X. I can buy it from you, or you can give it to me, or you can make it for me or with me, but I need the compound in timeframe Y." This is like a Molecular Craigslist, and would reduce some of the supply-demand barriers in chemical research.

Related Series

The arypyrrole series is the first to be examined. A forked series, the pyrazoles, looks attractive but has not yet received a great deal of input. Two other interesting-looking starting points from the GSK set, based on a triazolourea and a thienopyrimidine, are currently being resynthesised by James Cronshaw in Sydney to confirm their activity, upon which time it will be necessary to decide which, if either, are to be taken on further. In general a strategy for the project is to decide as early as possible which series are looking attractive biologically, because there are still a lot of leads to pursue. If any of these structures look synthetically attractive to you based on your previous experience, please consider joining the project. Some of these molecules are quite straightforward to make and would be suitable for undergraduate lab classes.

Open Source Drug Discovery More Generally

A one-day meeting on open source drug discovery for malaria was held in February 2012. General issues surrounding the feasibility of open source drug discovery were discussed, followed by more specific malaria-related ideas. These talks are gradually going up on YouTube with annotations, and they frame many of the relevant issues, for example the landscape of drug discovery in neglected diseases, and whether patents are necessary in drug discovery. An important message is that open source drug discovery is where anyone may participate in driving the research, which is different from a more general use of the word "open" where data are made freely available, but perhaps after a delay which essentially prevents participation by others.

How We Run the Project

The way the project is run is one of the novelties, though as with everything in this project nothing is static and advice is always welcome on improvements. Raw experimental data are recorded in an online, openly-readable electronic lab notebook. The Synaptic Leap is being used to discuss ideas and results, as well as plan future work. The project's Google+ page is a light way to keep up with developments and discuss. The project's Twitter feed is a broadcast mechanism for updates. LinkedIn as used in the past on another project as a way of connecting with relevant experts, but has not been used much so far in this project. A wiki (that includes this page) is used to host the current overall project status. If you wish to participate in this project, you can sign up to all these sites, and you would then be sent the Twitter/G+ passwords so you can used the same accounts. A Facebook page is needed next but doesn't exist yet.

Why Take Part?

What of motivations? Why would people want to contribute to this project? Partly to solve a problem. Partly to be involved with quality science that is open, and hence subject to the most brutal form of ongoing peer-review. Partly for academic credentials since regular peer-reviewed papers will come from the project. Partly to demonstrate competence publicly - open science is meritocratic and status-blind. Perhaps a mixture of all these things.

A competition is possible in the future, i.e. with a cash prize. Progress towards a very promising lead compound series has been rapid, but there is a long road to a compound that looks sufficiently promising that it moves towards clinical trials. There's a lot of tweaking needed, and perhaps even the move to another series. It is not obvious what will happen. It is certain the project will need a lot more input than it has received to date. A prize may increase traffic and input. The competition would be teamless, however, awarded based on performance of individuals within a group where everything is shared. Not sharing data or ideas leads to disqualification. Such a competition is difficult to judge, difficult to award, and hence almost certainly worth doing. More about this is here.


A final point - the project is open. Nobody owns it. Those people most active in the project lead it while they are active. If you wish to contribute, in any capacity, please do so. There is no need to "clear" anything with existing project members by email first. To date is has been very common for current participants to receive questions/suggestions from people by email, which is to be discouraged. In the development of Linux, the need for Linus Torvalds to approve everything caused a serious bottleneck, and the observation that "Linus doesn't scale". Nobody scales, but the team does. So it's more efficient if all the project discussions are held publicly. Many people do not like this idea. In science the idea of "beta testing" something is alien. When data are released in science there is an expectation that the data are correct, and essentially finished. This project eschews this view. All data are released immediately, all discussions are public, anyone can participate.


Comments and input can be by Twitter, Google+, The Synaptic Leap or directly on the relevant Electronic Lab Notebooks. This page also has a "talk" tab for input. Or please write your own input somewhere (e.g., your own blog) and link to the project. Anonymity is perfectly acceptable, just less useful. Please avoid email.


The project's licence unless otherwise stated is CC-BY-3.0 meaning you can use whatever you want for whatever purpose, provided you cite the project.