ASAP awards – Interview with Mat Todd

ASAP Finalist Announcement 600x600
The name of the six finalists for the ASAP awards are out.

Backed by major sponsors like Google, PLOS and the Wellcome Trust, and a number of other organisations, this award seeks to “build awareness and encourage the use of scientific research — published through Open Access — in transformative ways.”

One of the finalists is Mat Todd for his participation in the Global Collaboration to Fight Malaria.

Few research projects reflect this spirit of Open Science as well as the Open Source Malaria Project which is trying to find molecules that can help fight this terrible disease. Unlike other drug discovery projects, they are building on compounds that have been put the public domain and making the discovery process not only open for anyone to look at but also for anyone who wants to participate to do so – whatever that contribution might be.

Courtesy of ASAP awards

I had a chance to talk to Mat Todd the other night and he was gracious to answer some of my questions.

Q: What made you get engaged in Open Research?

MT: I kept looking around me and finding problems that were not being solved efficiently because people are not exploiting the power of the Internet to work together. Putting your work on the web helps to get greater interaction and find the best people to work with you. The psychological barrier, however, is that in the process you lose control of your project and failures are clearly revealed.

Q; How do you get people to overcome those barriers?

MT: I don’t know.  You need to have the attitude that something needs to be done and done really well, even if it is not ultimately done by you. We should assume that the next generation will adopt approaches to solving problems that are more fluid than how they are today.

Q: How did the Open Source Malaria project get started?

MT: We built on an earlier project that solved how to make a drug in an improved way, something that was needed by the World Health Organisation. (here and here) We thought “how about extending this to drug discovery?” That’s interesting because there you have the issue of whether you need patent protection, which is seemingly at odds with a totally open approach. We were able to start with data that GSK had put in the public domain in 2010. This move by GSK was pretty incredible, but they had so many compounds that were active against malaria that they considered putting the data into the public domain as a sound idea to increase their interactions with other scientists. Open data stimulates research activity by others.

Q: What do you think this project means to the Open Science movement?

MT: The project lets people see the process and that might get people more interested in what science is: there’s nothing mysterious about it, just people doing work. The Open Source Malaria project also eschews patents, and that means you need to think about whether new medicines can be taken all the way through to the public without that kind of protection – that’s actually what the session I’m running at OKCon at the moment is all about. How will we cover downstream costs of making the project’s discoveries available to people? Generally though, there is a fair amount of pressure on the project – we need to get it right because we don’t want the project to become the example of open science not working!

Q: Do you think this open source model can be exploited for other diseases?

MT: Diseases vary in their risk and complexity, so it will depend on the disease. Phase III clinical trials is typically the cripplingly expensive bit and drugs can often fail there after lots of investment. In the case of malaria the full set of clinical trials may not be so costly. There is something to be said for the open approach de-risking the whole process because you ought to be more confident in the quality of the drugs you’re trialling. I think the answer to your question is “yes” in short. More generally though we need to think beyond financial profit and start thinking that healthy people are more productive – that changes the reasons why public funds might be used to cover these huge costs.

Q: Where is the project at?

MT: We have been focusing on the data and getting the project going, so we have not rushed to get the paper out. The paper is crucial but it is not the all and all. The process has been reversed, we first share the data and all the details of the project as it’s going, then when we have finished the project we move to publishing. The project itself has just started looking at a new series of very nice compounds that have also come from the private sector and have been put in the public domain by MMV.

Q: What have you come to enjoy about participating in the project?

MT: What I love about it is working with really smart people wherever they are, from students to professors, Australia through Europe to the US.

 Q: And where do you think Open Science is at?

MT: Very early days. If everyone in the world did open science then it would just be science and I could stop talking about it…

I came across Mat online several years ago, and he, like most others that participated in the Open Science discussions, helped shape my thinking and strengthen my commitment to a better way of doing science. We talked a bit about those “good old days”, and he ended the conversation with a quote from Charles Dickens:

“We are all sailing away to the sea, and have a pleasure in thinking of the river we are upon, when it was very narrow and little.” (From Dickens, C. (2012). The Selected Letters of Charles Dickens. Oxford University Press)