Cheminformatics skills shortage threatens Indian drug discovery program

The Open Source Drug Discovery (OSDD) program India set up in 2008 promised to disrupt the current model and deliver new treatments for neglected diseases. Six years later, OSDD is still working towards these goals, but has run up against shortages in two age-old areas: Money and skills.

Earlier this month the Times of India reported that bureaucratic delays had stopped OSDD from having its funding extended. This week Forbes India picked up the story, and--while it makes no mention of the funding delay--its feature shows how the idealistic ambitions of OSDD are coping with the realities of drug discovery. A lack of staff with cheminformatics skills is one of the headwinds slowing progress by creating a bottleneck at the hit-identification phase of the discovery process.

OSDD needs researchers who can use software to find candidates against tuberculosis, malaria and other diseases from a database of billions of druglike compounds. A 2013 grant gave OSDD cash to train cheminformaticians, but it will take time for these students to develop into experts. OSDD has also worked with the United Kingdom's Royal Society of Chemistry to develop algorithms for spotting drug candidates in its database.

While the algorithm has improved OSDD's hit-identification capabilities, the gains are irrelevant if the database it scours lacks suitable drug candidates. OSDD is using GDB-17, an open-access database of 166 billion computer-generated druglike compounds, but thinks the real gems are locked away in the libraries Big Pharma companies have built through decades of work. "If Pfizer, for example, decides to open all its compound libraries, I am hundred percent sure I can find a drug for malaria," Ram Vishwakarma, director of OSDD partner the Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine, said.

- read the Forbes feature
- here's the Times of India article