Pharmaceutical scientists show the way

A frequent objection to co-creation in pharmaceutical research – which we will define here as the sharing of research data and cost in the hope of discovering new therapies for major human conditions – runs something like this: “co-creation is fine and dandy, but it runs so orthogonal to the commercial interests of large pharmaceutical firms that it will never work.” My timid encouragement toward co-creation across private and public entities in the healthcare sector has usually been dismissed as a sign of my ignorance of how the industry really works, probably coupled with some Marxist-Leninist drift attributable to my European ancestry.

Fortunately, a few pharmaceutical scientists decided to take the matter into their own hands for research on Alzheimer’s disease. A recent article in the New York Times describes how back in 2003, a group of scientists decided they needed to build a common database and research protocol to identify biomarkers that may lead to Alzheimer’s. As a result, they sweet-talked their respective employers into this co-creative approach – from the very public National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration to very private players in the pharmaceuticals and medical imaging industries.

I find it particularly interesting that the scientists themselves took this initiative. They knew what needed to be done from a scientific standpoint – the idea was to accelerate the pace of research and get to results faster – and they were the only ones who could sell this approach to their business colleagues and bosses. The typical corporate strategy approach driven by businesspeople and shareholders, with its focus on deals and industry restructurings, might have suggested a merger or an acquisition, perhaps an alliance, but it would not have produced this syndication of such a strategic step in the research process.

The software industry has followed the same evolution. Software scientists have also bypassed the corporate proprietary imperative and established a social community of co-creators, leading to the development of the Linux operating software and Apache HTTP Server, for example.  Interestingly, a booming private industry has developed on top of these community-developed programs, proving that co-creation does not lead to socialistic mediocrity, but to a different model of capitalistic vibrancy. There is every reason to believe that the same will be true for the Alzheimer’s diagnostics and drugs industry when it finally materializes. The article in the New York Times reports that many promising papers and experiments are now hitting the market, based on the research work initiated back in 2003.

Another important constituency in healthcare is the patients themselves and their families. One does not feel the pain of undeveloped software with the same intensity as the lack of an Alzheimer’s drug. We all have friends or relatives touched by Alzheimer’s. In some cases, patients have themselves created communities where they share immensely private data about their symptoms and medication, in the thin hope of finding treatments where the pharmaceuticals industry has not deemed it commercially attractive to direct resources at the issue. offers a window of such human distress, where patients for example analyze whether lithium can help in the treatment of ALS disease.

In the end, corporations and public agencies have little compassion. But the scientists who populate them do. And thank God for that.

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