Open-source technology – the next step in pharmaceutical evolution

open source technology software

Open-source technology is an increasingly popular topic of conversation in the business world, with forward-thinking entrepreneurs around the globe recognising it as a solution set to exponentially increase the rate of technological advancement in the 21st century. But that’s not to say it isn’t without its challenges.

Modern biology is now almost entirely driven by software, and the most effective software is open-source. For example, Amazon Web Services currently has 1,200 AWS-led open-source projects in progress on GitHub, the only community for code sharing and development, a clear endorsement from one of the most influential players in this field.

Open-source data sharing and the life sciences industry

At its core, open-source technology is about collaboration, and researchers around the world are acutely aware of its value across their areas of study. In fact, many of them are already using tools that are based on this very principle, sharing advanced techniques, building on the work of their contemporaries, and focusing on scientific development over ownership and IP. Recent data collected from 500 scientists, bioinformaticians, and computational biologists worldwide by Seqera Labs suggests that 75% of global researchers are collaborating on projects in areas from oncology to infectious disease monitoring. If we think back to the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers from across the globe were sharing data, tracking the spread, and highlighting concerning mutations in the viral genomes that would go on to be recognised as variants like Delta and Omicron.

While open-source data sharing has been a frequent go-to among the academic and research communities, many senior business leaders are not yet harnessing the seismic-shift this will cause to the life sciences industry. But with this technology we are certain to see an increase in the rate of scientific discovery that will go on to benefit people living around the world, and in no sector is this more prevalent already than in life sciences. With each generation that passes, the technical and scientific solutions developed become more sophisticated, and open-source is quickly becoming the avenue with which to keep up with the demands of modern life sciences research. Complex, exciting, and innovative areas of investigation - such as personalised medicine, vaccine development and epidemiology, and cell therapies, - are already being made possible faster and more efficiently thanks to wider adoption of open-source principles.

Data orchestration tools: Delivering insights faster

The biomedical research industry is one of the most prolific adopters of open-source and data sharing, dealing in vast amounts of data and highly sophisticated processing systems. Take genomic analysis, for example. If you begin to sequence the DNA of an individual human being, you are harvesting data that is representative of the 3.2 billion base pairs that make each human unique. Before the rise of open-source and cloud technology, each laboratory would need to develop their own analytical systems or software to process this data, with significant time and financial costs. Now, with data orchestration tools, laboratories can share the solutions needed to process vast quantities of data – delivering insights faster than was previously possible. The data shows that 72% of those working in life sciences and genomics already believe open-source pipeline tools are “fundamental” to the work they do, and adoption of cloud computing in this area is up 20% on the year before.

An important factor in promoting scientific and medical advancement is ensuring that small facilities with limited resources are given the opportunity to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to genome sequencing and processing. Without open-source solutions, many small labs would drown in an overwhelming sea of data, greatly complicating the processes of investigation and interrogation, and therefore not draw the conclusions needed to make genuine human advancements.

We’ve seen what humanity can do when it begins to work together, from the first detection of the COVID-19 strain, to the manufacturing of a vaccine in just 12 months - when scientists are not restricted by borders and red tape, they can defy all odds and change the world. The relationship between Big Pharma and biotech companies is also changing, in 2021 there was 23% uptick in the money raised by biotech from partnerships with global pharmaceutical companies.

The future of open-source data sharing

In the coming decades, we will see the value of open-source being recognised across the board, as new medical techniques that are already being discussed today are rolled out in health systems internationally. Personalised medicine is gaining a huge amount of traction in the life sciences community, tailoring the treatment of each patient to their specific needs and genetic profile. With personalised medicine we will be able to highlight individuals at higher risk of specific inherited conditions, or target cancers with more accuracy based on the mutations detected in tumours.

We are now seeing the first trials of immunotherapy cancer vaccines developed by BioNTech being conducted in the UK - a huge achievement, and the result of years of genomic analysis. But to go further, we will need to sequence and process more DNA than ever before: something not possible without access to genomics processing software. Currently, approaches like this are incredibly expensive, but collaborative work is set to decrease the cost of this treatment rapidly. And healthcare systems are aware of this, too. For instance, Seqera Labs recently partnered with Genomics England, an organisation set up by the NHS, in order to help the post processing of its 100,000 Genomes Project. Many governments know the benefits of open-source and the UK is among several European nations placing importance on genomics research.

To solve the great challenges of modern medicine, we can’t rely on outdated approaches to research. Siloed, closed, and insular practices do nothing but hinder the progress of medical research in this area, often duplicating the work of scientists and wasting time that could have been spent on more urgent areas of concern. The future of science is open-source, this is clear to most within the genomics field, but it will take time before the entire industry embraces this vision.

Evan Floden
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Evan Floden