Bringing down Big Pharma's fortress

SIMDAT Project ends with successful virtual outsourcing project at GSK

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LONDON—The SIMDAT Project, an international, cross-industry grid data technology consortium funded by the European Commission, will bring its four-year program to a close this month with a case study at GlaxoSmithKline demonstrating the successful use of secure grid technology to enable virtual drug discovery through virtual outsourcing.

According to Rob Gill, former head of Biology Domain Architecture at GSK, the pilot project illustrated how pharmas can benefit from virtual drug discovery collaborations—a new business model that comes at a time Big Pharma is turning away from a "fortress mentality" to risk-sharing partnerships to offset R&D costs and to survive the declining global economy, he says.

"Pharma is changing rapidly in response to new global drivers, and the need to partner and use the best skills and technologies wherever they can be found is paramount to its future success," says Gill, who is now director of Bio-IT at Pronota NV, a next-generation protein biomarker discovery platform developer based in Ghent, Belgium. "It is already apparent that core functions once based within research are being replaced by external companies and collaborations, driving down cost and opening up new skilled teams and resources. If this is to happen effectively without disastrous effect in Big Pharma integration strategies, then IT needs to look closely at these new needs and develop solutions to best fit the fast-moving and flexible approach to outsourcing drug discovery."

The pilot project at GSK involved setting up a secure grid-enabled environment to support the electronic outsourcing of data analysis and annotation of biological data to other companies. The system was built using a combination of Internet security models and InforSense workflows, then run across a test bed comprising five different remote sites. Two SIMDAT partners, BioFocus DPI and Université Libre, provided data analysis services.

Other partners included the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), a public research institute; IT Innovation, a collaborative-IT focused research center; the Fraunhofer Institute for Algorithms and Scientific Computing (SCAI), a numerical simulation, virtual engineering and bioinformatics firm; and NEC Europe Ltd., a high-performance software technology developer.

"SIMDAT has enabled us to test out all the components we need to support the virtual outsourcing of data analysis in a secure environment," Gill says. "Most of these concerns faded over the span of SIMDAT because of the push for virtualization in GSK began to drive different ways of thinking across the IT organization. We learned that this type of virtual organization can be successfully achieved. There are various pitfalls and blind alleys along the way, but now we have the knowledge to do this."

GSK has expressed an interest in continuing to work with the partners, says Dr. Sean O'Donoghue, a research scientist at the EMBL.

"It was explained to us many times that pharma research costs are increasing and there is pressure to reduce them," O'Donoghue says. "With the success of this project, GSK realized there are many components of its drug discovery pipeline that could be better done by experts in the industry. They seem more prepared to outsource parts of the delivery stage, and not just the discovery stage when drugs are candidates and targets."

The project has long-term benefits for its partners as well. Nick Goode, vice president of marketing at InforSense, says the company's proven track record of "managing multiple data sources on the fly" can be applied to industries outside of pharma.

"Although we have demonstrated the success of our technology mainly in the pharma sector, they have also been used within the automotive sector, where car manufacturers collaborated with other companies and outsourced various parts of crash simulations," Goode says. "Because this proof-of-concept application is a really exciting new way to do research, we are talking to people in the auto industry as well as the aerospace industry, and we are seeing a lot of penetration into mainstream verticals like the finance and health care industries." DDN

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