Reinventing the Pharmaceutical Industry, without the Industry: The Founder of the Pink Army Cooperative Is Bringing the Open-Source Development Model to Breast Cancer Therapies

Article excerpt

If I were to tell you that volunteers working out of garages and bedrooms could play as big a role in the elimination of breast cancer by 2020 as a multi-billion-dollar big pharmaceutical company, would you believe me?

I'm convinced it's possible. That's why I founded the Pink Army Cooperative. The Cooperative is not your average biotechnology startup. It's an open source biotechnology venture that is member-owned and operated and not-for-profit. It's working to create individualized therapies for breast cancer. The mission is to build a new drug development pipeline able to produce effective therapies faster for less money, without compromising safety.

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About six years ago, I realized that the cooperative model could change the future of medicine. I'd just spent years working inside a well-funded scientific playhouse where R&D should have moved forward at breakneck speed, but somehow it hadn't. Technologies are changing fast, and drugs frequently fail in development.

It costs hundreds of millions, or even billions, of dollars to bring a drug to market, and the costs are still growing faster than inflation. Even the largest pharmaceutical companies are struggling. The bottom line? Making a new drug is an adventure with no guarantee of success at any cost. The question I asked myself was, why hasn't the pipeline been scrapped and replaced with something that can accommodate development done faster, better, and cheaper?

There is no public route for drug development; virtually all development is industry-backed. I wondered, if open-source software could effectively challenge multibillion-dollar software franchises, could scientists and drug developers work cooperatively to compete with a product from a big pharmaceutical company? To my mind, breast cancer therapies were the obvious choice, since many people already give time and money toward finding a cure.

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Perhaps the single most powerful tool for accomplishing this goal is openness, which allows everyone, amateur or professional, anywhere, to peek under the hood of the company, understand what is being done, and add his or her ideas or comments. I personally believe it's lack of transparency and inability to share information easily that has held back the biopharma industry compared to the IT industry.

Overall, as biology becomes more digital, there is potential for massive change. Open access will make it easier to share ideas, publish protocols and tools, verify results, firewall bad designs, communicate best practices, and more. Individualized medicine development will be built on this open foundation, which will only help developers be more successful and lower risk.

It also permits a novel funding model--i.e., directly approaching those who would benefit from any breakthrough. Whereas traditional funding models require attracting a few individuals or groups able to make large investments, for which they expect a financial return, we can deliver our message widely, asking people to invest $20 in a membership, in exchange for sharing our data with the community. Finding people to support us and running the cooperative itself is made easier because of social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

In the short term, I don't see open-source drug development having a large effect on the U.S. health economy. The $2 trillion--plus system includes many products and services beyond just drugs. But there is room for a few examples to exist, make a real and measurable difference, and inspire others to experiment with nonprofit development. If Pink Army can treat even a single individual, I will consider the project a tremendous success, although I hope it will grow to treat millions of people with medicines that only get better and cheaper over time. …