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Can Open Source Save Big Pharma?

|Includes:ABT, JNJ, MRK, Pfizer Inc. (PFE)

Big pharmaceutical companies like Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer  and Abbott Labs have a problem software companies can relate to.

The costs of drug discovery, and drug trials, have grown exponentially, resulting in a smaller pipeline of new drugs and massive consolidation throughout the industry.

For software, open source provided a partial answer. By pooling basic technology through groups like the Eclipse Foundation and Apache, software companies have been able to reduce costs while retaining the power to innovate and sell innovations.

While health IT has used the open source process, both publicly (through the VA's redevelopment of its VistA platform) and privately (through groups like Open Health Tools) drug delivery itself remains a proprietary affair.

Now Pfizer is taking the first baby steps away from an all-proprietary formula by sharing the design of its first all-electronic drug trial, for the bladder control drug Detrol.

A number of companies are providing technology that lets Pfizer recruit trial participants online and have those people manage their own therapy. Myrtus is working on the front-end. Exco inTouch provides the mobile e-diary equipment. Perceptive Informatics is providing the back-end processing. The University of California is providing third-party validation.

The result, it's hoped, will be a lower-cost process for trials, which are one of the biggest cost sinks in drug research. Some, like Tomasz Sablinski of Celtic Therapeutics, want to expand the approach into full-fledged open source drug research but we are a long way from that.

A shared IT approach to trials will not, by itself, re-start the new drug pipeline, but it could be the first step toward a shared infrastructure approach that might.

Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.

Additional disclosure: This comes out of my work on both health IT and open source at ZDNet. It's pure reporting. I have no financial interest in any of these companies.
Stocks: PFE, JNJ, MRK, ABT