the Structural Genomics Consortium enters its second decade, the challenge has shifted from
showing that its model of providing open access to biological data is
sustainable to expanding intellectual and geographic reach. Thus, the
consortium now is looking to engage clinical scientists and add a site in South
What was the motivation for founding the SGC?
Rob Cooke and others at GSK came up with the idea to pool resources to solve
the protein structures that each company was working on individually. Because
the Wellcome Trust was involved in building a synchrotron and was motivated to
seed research activity around it, there was a nexus of interest from pharma and
Wellcome to build a SNP-like consortium [the Single Nucleotide Polymorphism
Consortium] for protein structures in Oxford.
SciBX: What were the
early days like?
AE: In 2003, we were in
hunker-down mode. There were 2 of us, empty labs and a
$100 million check. Our goal was to solve 350 human protein structures by
mid-2007. And we had to solve them from a list provided by the funders. There
were a lot of doubts that we could meet our goal. We solved 465 structures.
SciBX: What was the initial perception of the SGC
and its open-access research model?
AE: One bias from the academic world was that the effort
constituted a nonscience-driven factory that was simply taking money away from
the funding base. A second bias was that we were doing industry's business with
the public purse. This bias was mitigated somewhat by the involvement of
respected organizations like the Canadian funders and the Wellcome Trust.
SciBX: Has this perception changed among
AE: Ten years later, there is more acceptance of the idea that
this project serves the public good. We have hundreds of collaborators in
academia and have published with 150 different institutions in the past 3 years
alone. Our structures have a reputation of high quality, and our work is known
for being reproducible. So yes, I believe it has changed.
SciBX: And among pharma?
AE: Yes, I think the perception changed because the SGC as a
precompetitive consortium delivers what it says it will, and produces
high-quality, reproducible science. The perception change has also been helped
by the ever-increasing squeeze on research dollars. Companies can spend $1 to
get $1 of research internally or spend $1 to get $10 of research or more in the
SGC and its collaborative network.
SciBX: How did the SGC get interested in chemical
AE: In 2004, we started to build chemistry capabilities. We
knew then that we ultimately wanted to make inhibitors, but we were only funded
for structures. We knew that having a small molecule that bound a protein could
improve the probability of getting crystals and showed this using hundreds of
examples with the thermal shift assay.1
SciBX: What will the
next phase look like for the SGC?
AE: We have
noticed that when the tools we generate are used by clinicians in
patient-derived samples, there is much more rapid uptake of the probes by other
academic scientists and much more interest generated in industry. So the path
is obvious-continue to make tools, but organize networks of clinical
institutions that agree to use the tools in patient-derived samples and make
the data available without restriction.
SciBX: What makes the SGC unique?
AE: I think we are
unique from an organizational point of view. To my knowledge, no other PPP of
this scale has an explicit no-IP policy. We are also more like a company within
SciBX: How do you compare the productivity of the
SGC to other PPPs?
AE: There are no good measures for this. To my knowledge, PPPs
set objectives but don't advertise them, or they set fuzzy objectives. They are
rarely held to account. In some cases, the partnership rather than the outcome
is viewed as the end goal.
SciBX: What are the biggest challenges for the open-access
AE: Balancing the expectations of the various funders is the
hardest aspect of what I do. Academics and public-sector funders respect
papers, and companies care about the impact, as well as quantitative metrics to
ensure that there is no mission drift. There is always some internal tension.
SciBX: There is an abundance of PPPs now. Why do
you think the IP-free model for open innovation remains rare?
AE: It remains hard for people to wrap their heads around the
fact that the misuse of patents and the opportunity cost of filing patents at
the early stages of any business can have a detrimental effect on innovation.
And there is also the lottery ticket mentality, where on rare occasions, one
can get lucky and generate a result of enormous commercial benefit.
SciBX: After 10 years, what are the biggest
benefits you have seen come from the open-access research model?
AE: This is an interesting question. I could point to the
dozens of high-profile papers that have emerged from our work, but to be honest
if you took the funding we received and distributed it among a dozen top
scientists, I'm sure that they'd publish good papers too.
SciBX: Thank you very much for your time.
A. SciBX 7(21);
Published online May 29, 2014
1. Vedadi, M. et al.
Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 103, 15835-15840 (2006)
2. Edwards, A.M. et al.
Nat. Chem. Biol. 5, 436-440 (2009)
3. Knapp, S. et al.
Nat. Chem. Biol. 9, 3-6 (2013)
AND INSTITUTIONS MENTIONED
GlaxoSmithKline plc (LSE:GSK; NYSE:GSK), London, U.K.
Structural Genomics Consortium, Oxford, U.K.
University of Campinas, São Paulo, Brazil
University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
University of Oxford, Oxford, U.K.