New era for natural products explored at InnovationWell Basel

Some of our most powerful modern pharmaceuticals come from nature. Yet, less than 10% of the 250,000 known plant species have been studied and, of the 300,000 phytochemicals developed from them, only 10% are available commercially. Clearly, we are nowhere near making full use of nature’s treasures. With the threat of antibiotic-resistant superbugs growing, with cancers and diabetes becoming global epidemics, the time has come to do so. Could new methods for managing data and an open source platform for sharing research be the key to finding leads?

It was this question that drew members from the Swiss pharma/chemical community to the first InnovationWell Basel knowledge café held on November 21 at the Basel Technology Park. Co-sponsored by Douglas Connect and the new Swiss OpenTox Chapter*, the event explored how technology could open the way to new drug discovery from natural products. The Basel event was the first in Europe, following InnovationWell’s successful deployment in Boston, Philadelphia and the North Carolina Research Triangle.

InnovationWell’s informal knowledge café format aims to get participants brainstorming about an issue. At the Basel event, four experts offered their perspectives before the group broke up for an informal discussion about the ideas.

Tímea Polgár, Founder and CEO, NatureAI (formerly Envision Biotechnology), outlined her mission to build NaturAI, a platform powered by artificial intelligence to create an evidence-based natural product database and search engine. “Information on natural products and traditional medicine is often ambiguous or unavailable and current databases may not be applicable for discovery sciences,” she said. Dr. Polgar’s company, NatureAI, has already developed a software platform to support drug discovery based on natural sources, but locating and integrating data into one database usable by all scientists remains a challenge. Yet, only 10% of the estimated 300,000 known plant substances are available commercially. So where do you get the rest?

“I think natural products offer the pharmaceutical industry great potential to find new leads,” said Phil Judson, chemist and Founder/Scientific Advisor, Lhasa Limited, “in the same way that the earlier industry did precisely that by trying to understand products like aspirin or quinine, for example.” Citing his experience working in Cameroon, he added, “A lot of traditional pharmaceutical knowledge has been compiled by researchers but it’s in documents filed away in universities in Africa. We have to get all that information into a usable database. Providing fair intellectual property protection would be a strong incentive for local researchers to share their data and knowledge.”

Bruno David, PhD and Pharma D, Sourcing and Botany Director, Natural Substances, Pierre Fabre, brought the perspective of a medium-size company (13,000 employees) active in natural product research since its beginnings in 1960. Pierre Fabre developed the anticancer hemisynthetic compounds vinorelbine and vinflunine vinca-alkaloids used in chemotherapy. Today, the company’s library holds some 17,000 dried plant samples and extracts, of which 8% of the samples were collected by Dr. David himself. In his presentation, he presented Pierre Fabre’s new disruptive approach in drug discovery from Natural Products, The Natural Fragment Library, whose preliminary results with the French biotech company NovAliX he called most promising. “Nowadays, legal certainty around access is a key point, with general implementation of national Access and Benefit Sharing regulations,” he said.

The question remains how to organize such a complex collaboration. Fortunately, a model already exists, explained Barry Hardy, CEO, Douglas Connect. Drawing on his experience leading the global scientific community OpenTox, Dr. Hardy used the analogy of islands to explain the fragmentation of toxicity knowledge. “When we began OpenTox, not only were the islands unconnected by bridges but even once we could reach the islands, we found that the data could not be shared because it was organized in such different ways. So, OpenTox began by developing an ontology. But, even when this common language was available, we found that community engagement was still necessary to provide a further cultural explanation.” To advance data sharing, he added, scientists around the world should apply the lessons learned in the series of global communities like OpenTox, OpenRiskNet, and NanoCommons. “OpenRiskNet is a second-generation OpenTox that is extending its concepts to the risk assessment of chemicals and nanotechnology. Now, the timing seems right to extend the cases to natural products, too.”

* The first Swiss OpenTox chapter recently set up in Basel. Other local chapters are already operating in Asia and North America.