This morning, on World Cancer Day, Merck announced that it is joining nine other pharmaceutical companies in partnering with the Structural Genomics Consortium (SGC) Toronto and its network of hospital partners. Based at MaRS, the SGC is a not-for-profit public-private partnership that supports the discovery of new medicines through open-access research.

“This announcement is a reaffirmation of Merck’s commitment to the Canadian life science research innovation sector, which is particularly vibrant in this location at the centre of one of the world’s largest urban innovation hubs,” said Chirfi Guindo, President and Managing Director of Merck Canada Inc. “We believe that this initiative will also demonstrate the power of collaboration across the health spectrum for the benefit of those most important in healthcare – patients.”

All signs are pointing toward an open and fast-moving future. We can see evidence of this in the rapid prototyping technologies, open data and global collaboration tools that are emerging in a variety of industries. But what about the industries that are tackling some of the most important issues in our world today—like cancer research? With approximately 14 million diagnosed with cancer each year globally, companies and organizations in the cancer research industry are beginning to follow suit.

Take the Structural Genomics Consortium (SGC) led by director and CEO Aled Edwards for example.

Sharing discoveries with everyone

Founded in 2003, the SGC was formed to discover and share. Since its inception, it has determined the shapes of 15% of all of the known proteins from the human genome and has made this information available before publication and without restriction on use. The SGC is by far the greatest single contributor to this global project, and these protein structures are facilitating hundreds of drug discovery projects around the world.

Five years ago, based on the success of its open-source model for structural biology, the SGC extended its model to medicinal chemistry.

In 2009, scientists from GlaxoSmithKline and Mitsubishi independently discovered that a drug-like compound could inhibit one of the proteins studied by the SGC. It was a groundbreaking discovery, but neither company had a clear idea about the use for the compound. In a bold attempt to learn more, the pharmaceutical industry began collaborating with the SGC to take this chemistry discovery open source. The idea was that sharing information about the protein and giving away the compound would enable more people to understand the disease and to move faster to find a solution.

Merck at MaRS
Merck announces it is joining nine pharmaceutical companies in partnering with the Structural Genomics Consortium (SGC) Toronto at MaRS.

Using networks and partnerships to learn more, faster

The traditional model of drug discovery is shrouded in secrecy, but the pharmaceutical industry and the SGC believed that a different model should be explored. And so, the SGC, in partnership with a Harvard clinician, developed a version of the compound and found that it might be a good treatment for a rare cancer. The team then released the chemical compound information to the wider research community. Others used it and found that it had potential for many diseases, including other cancers.

“We gave away the compound, something no one has ever done before. Openness can be incredibly powerful,” says Aled Edwards, CEO of the SGC.

There are currently over 30 companies working on this idea and six ongoing clinical trials. One of the companies was recently purchased for $375 million.

“It’s incredible,” adds Aled. “No one knew about this in 2010 and now we’re in Phase 2 clinical trials.”

Fast-forwarding research

Neither the SGC nor its partners receive monetary benefits from the discoveries, but they could not be more delighted with the outcome.

“The speed at which this thing went from concept to clinical trials was two to three times faster than if we had followed a traditional path to patent and monetize it,” explains Aled. “The patients win, scientists win, industry wins. This new partnership model has incredible potential for the future.”

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Sarah Aspler

Sarah Aspler was a Communications Assistant at MaRS. Sarah recently graduated with a bachelor of technology from Ryerson University in Toronto. See more…