In an inspired initiative that began in 2011, the Malaria Box project from the Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV) foundation has pioneered the frontiers of open access research. The Malaria Box project works by mailing interested parties a box-set of some of the most promising active compounds for anti-malaria drug development. In exchange, recipients promise that the results of any research using the box’s contents will be published in the public domain.
Medicines for Malaria Venture is a Swiss not-for-profit foundation built off of public-private collaborations. MMV and its partner organizations are dedicated to discovering and developing anti-malaria drugs. To achieve this dream, researchers from MMV began searching for molecules with malaria-fighting capabilities in a way similar to picking through an entire haystack to find a needle. The researchers analyzed over four million compounds that they acquired from the chemical libraries of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Novartis, and GlaxoSmithKline. Of these four million different kinds of molecules, they were able to narrow the field down to about 20,000 likely candidates for anti-malaria activity.
The organization’s commitment to transparency prompted Medicines for Malaria Venture to make their research on these compounds openly accessible to the public. While this newly opened treasure-trove of data intrigued many outside researchers, most were unable to follow-up on that interest. In particular, small laboratories with limited financial resources faced great difficulty in acquiring the promising molecules. Consequently, MMV’s initial bid for collaboration with others made a disappointingly small wave within the scientific community.
To harness the brain-power from these interested researchers, Medicines for Malaria Venture launched their Malaria Box Project in 2011. The program works by mailing interested researchers a complete box-set of malaria research tools free of charge. Each kit contains over 400 of the most promising anti-malaria compounds in quantities large enough to use in up to ten experiments. About half of the compounds are candidates for oral malaria drugs, and the other half are used for basic parasitology research. The only condition for receiving a free box is that the receiving researchers must release any and all resulting data into the public domain within two years.
To date, 177 Malaria Boxes have been distributed. Three have gone to South America, ten to Africa, and 15 to Asia. Around 70 percent of the receiving researchers have used the box’s contents to study malaria. A smaller percent of participants have also used it to study the effects of the bioactive compounds against other pathogens such as those that cause cryptosporidiosis, Chagas disease, visceral leishmaniasis, and sleeping sickness. Thus far nine peer-reviewed scientific papers have been published as a result of this work. Practically speaking of course, the ultimate measure of the project’s success will be whether or not any new and effective drugs come out of the crowd-sourced effort. However in the mean time project participants and sponsors remain quite hopeful.
In fact, the Malaria Box project has inspired enough faith that Medicines for Malaria Venture is now looking to create the Pathogen Box initiative at the end of 2015. Like the Malaria Box, the Pathogen Box will contain about 400 drug-like molecules that have been pre-screened for pathogen-fighting abilities. Such a project will look at neglected tropical diseases such as schistosomiasis and tuberculosis. In the hopes of replicating the success of the Malaria Box project, the Pathogen Box project has received a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to support the creation and distribution of the boxes. Experts responsible for the pre-screening process of the kit’s contents have asked for the scientific community’s input on the matter to help them choose the best compounds for inclusion in the box.
By Sarah Takushi