Andrew Witty, GSK's chief executive, says the drug company will make thousands of drug structures public. Credit: GSK

GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) is to deposit more than 13,500 structures of possible drugs against malaria into the public domain, along with associated pharmacological data. The move marks the first large-scale public release of such structures by a pharmaceutical company, and it could lead to others following suit.

The news is part of an "open innovation" strategy to be announced today by Andrew Witty, GSK's chief executive, at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. The strategy also includes the creation of an "open lab" based at the company's neglected-diseases research facility at Tres Cantos in Spain, where academic researchers will be able to apply to work and access company expertise and resources.

GSK's move marks the latest development in a trend towards greater access to industry compound libraries — access that was unheard of just a few years ago. Over the past decade, new public–private partnerships such as the Global Alliance for TB Drug Development and the Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV) have forged deals with drug firms to give them privileged access to the companies' compound libraries.

The GSK move takes this a step further by opening up access to all academic scientists and other companies. "It's a good step," says Tido von Schoen-Angerer, head of the Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines at Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders), who says he hopes companies will open their libraries for other diseases.

Exhaustive screen

The structures were identified as inhibiting the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum in a screen of the company's 2-million-compound library — a process that took five scientists at Tres Cantos around one year to complete.

"The size of the screening is not earth-shattering news," says Timothy Wells, chief scientific officer of the MMV. The MMV, which collaborated with GSK on the screen, has, for example, also collaborated with Novartis to screen some 2 million compounds held by the company for activity against the parasite, and found 6,000 candidate 'hits'.

What is news, Wells says, is the public-domain aspect. "It's something everybody in pharma has talked about doing, and everybody seems to have a plan to do it some time in the future, but GSK are the first to really step into the breach and actually do it."

Instead of researchers relying on their own small, isolated and fragmented efforts, the field can now work off and build a shared data set, Wells says. It should also reduce duplication. "We often have academics coming to us and saying we have found a new structure, and we tell them that we already have ten of those," says Wells, "Now all of those data will be in public databases."

What's also important, says Bernard Pécoul, head of the Geneva-based Drugs For Neglected Diseases Initiative, is that GSK intends not only to release the structures but also relevant data it holds on the 'druggable properties' of the compounds such as their solubility, absorption, metabolism or toxicological profile, which will help with weeding out compounds that would be dead-ends in terms of drug development. "This is extremely precious information," says Pécoul.

More to come

Janet Morgan, a spokeswoman for GSK, says that the company does not intend to host the database of the structures itself but is under discussions with one or more existing databases accessible to scientists. The initial deposition will also probably be mirrored by other databases, as already happens for genome sequences, for example, which are mirrored in GenBank and at the European Bioinformatics Institute.

GSK may screen and publish structures for other neglected diseases for which assays are available. "We'll look at this on a case-by-case basis," Morgan says.

The assay GSK used tested which compounds inhibited the metabolism of the malaria parasite in infected red blood cells. Researchers will next need to screen the active molecules identified against the other life cycle stages of the parasite, in particular the sexual stages that get transmitted from person to person.

The GSK announcement comes on the heels of the opening on 18 January of ChEMBLdb, a drug discovery database of more than half a million compounds, their targets, and genomic and chemical data. It originally belonged to the Belgian biotech company Galapagos but was transferred to the public domain with £4.7 million (US$7.6 million) from the UK Wellcome Trust.