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Ushering in open science: Will COVID-19 forever change research and development?

A more collaborative and transparent approach to scientific research could expedite future discoveries across a range of disease areas.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese researchers shared the full genetic sequence of SARS-CoV-2 in The Lancet, an open access medical journal. Scientists around the world then set to work, often sharing their findings on open access formats, too. Data-sharing and collaboration accelerated disease understanding and enabled researchers to develop vaccines faster than ever before.

This is open science — an umbrella term for cooperative and transparent scientific processes, including the use of digital tools to share findings or scientific information at no cost. Open science is not a new concept, but collaborative COVID-related research highlighted its potential.

“The urgent crisis we are all facing has created a climate in which the greater good has outweighed any individual research ambitions,” says Vikram Savkar, senior vice president and general manager of the Medicine Segment, Health Learning, Research & Practice business at Wolters Kluwer, a clinical technology and evidence-based solutions provider based in Waltham, Mass.

Open science aides in the fight against COVID-19

Examples of scientific collaboration during the pandemic abound. One of the most notable? The partnership between BioNTech and Pfizer that resulted in the first COVID-19 vaccine. Other examples include Operation Warp Speed, the public–private partnership initiated by the U.S. Government to facilitate and accelerate the fight against COVID-19, and the Massachusetts Consortium on Pathogen Readiness, spearheaded by Harvard Medical School to bring together scientists across organizations.

In 2020, PerkinElmer also launched two free-access online data dashboards with drug compound and clinical trial data for the purpose of aiding the discovery of COVID-19 antivirals and vaccines. Boston-based Arcadia, a population health management and health intelligence platform, has been collaborating with Leavitt Partners’ COVID-19 Patient Recovery Alliance to share aggregated, de-identified health histories of more than 150 million patients from thousands of data sources across the United States to understand how and when vaccination decreases the risk of long-COVID symptoms.

The scientific community is also taking a unified approach to tracking SARS-CoV-2’s evolution.

“Genomic surveillance testing using Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) and other technologies has helped us understand mutations,” says Arvind Kothandaraman, managing director of specialty diagnostics at PerkinElmer. “This has enabled groups such as the World Health Organization (WHO) to identify and flag variants that need to be monitored routinely to keep the virus in check.”

Strategic partnerships and data-sharing aids people outside of the lab as well. Alexandra Koch, director of emergency management for the Colleges of the Fenway, says the collaboration between public health and emergency management professionals during the pandemic has been unprecedented.

“Open science allowed emergency managers who may not be trained in epidemiology a way to quickly understand health consequences for proposed actions,” she explains. “Additionally, open science evidence for public health interventions provided decision-makers with the right tools and strategies to combat an ever-evolving threat.”

Alaina G. Levine, professional speaker, science writer, and STEM career coach

Interdisciplinary collaboration is becoming increasingly common as challenges become more complex, says Alaina G. Levine, who speaks frequently about open science as a professional speaker, science writer, and STEM career coach based in Tucson, Ariz.

“It is no longer the case that scientists in one field will only contribute to solving problems in that field,” she says. “It is absolutely necessary to have teams where, for example, physicists, biologists, chemical engineers, mechanical engineers, and other STEM-educated professionals — as well as experts in business, communications, sociology, psychology, and other arenas — engage and partner to solve the most challenging problems. One great example of this is in climate science, where a cornucopia of experts in a diversity of fields are tackling this from many different angles.”

Applying open science beyond COVID-19

Because of COVID-19, the public may have a better understanding of the benefits of openness in science. According to the Healthcare Collaboration Report by Charles River Laboratories, a Wilmington, Mass.-based pharmaceutical company, 88% of respondents agreed that pandemic prevention requires a collaborative effort between government, health insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, health care providers, and patients. The study also found that 90% of Americans believe it will take a united effort of all key players to improve the health care system.

James C. Foster, chairman, president, and CEO

“The united front that was developed to address COVID-19 can serve as a model for how we should approach all drug development moving forward,” says James C. Foster, chairman, president, and CEO of Charles River Laboratories.

For example, open science has propelled important discoveries in the field of personalized medicine.

“Using Next Generation Sequencing, scientists are learning more each day about the human genome and how certain genetic variants may make a person more likely to develop certain diseases or conditions,” Kothandaraman says. “This advancement has armed clinicians with information to improve patient care, including recommendations that have proved to be lifesaving.”

For more than 400 million people worldwide living with a rare disease, open science is “quite literally a life-and-death issue,” says Craig Martin, CEO of Global Genes, a leading international rare disease advocacy group.

Since many of these disease communities are small, it can be hard to generate interest from researchers or drug developers. But 95% of rare diseases have no available treatments and are thus in dire need of research. Even when there is interest, identifying and sharing sufficient data to make discoveries is challenging. Martin believes answers will most likely come from pooling data across similar disease types.

To facilitate “secure but open data collection and analysis efforts on a common platform” to advance rare disease research, Global Genes partnered with RARE-X, a technology non-profit.

Data sharing is essential to developments in all disease areas.

Dr. Jurgi Camblong, CEO and founder of SOPHiA GENETICS

“Great scientific discoveries that result in new treatments or better paths to diagnosis do not happen in silos,” says Dr. Jurgi Camblong, CEO and founder of SOPHiA GENETICS, an American Swiss biotechnology company.

“Breaking down data silos that have existed between medical institutions, and even within those institutions, can open new doors for the benefit of patients around the world,” he says.

Collaborative science also helps researchers fail faster whenever they are pursuing a hypothesis that another research team may have already disproved.

For instance, “if we had deployed more of an open science approach in Alzheimer’s, would we be farther along now in understanding the root causes and potentially therapeutic options to address it?” Martin asks.

Another consideration is how we approach education. More complex problems beget the need for interdisciplinary collaboration, so scientists, as well as students, must realize contributions are not confined to a specific field of study, Levine says.

“We must be mindful, strategic, and open about career planning advice for STEM students and trainees to ensure they can grow and nurture their own innovation mindset,” she notes. “The future of society is truly dependent upon this.”

Best practices adopted during the pandemic could benefit all of science, but will it be enough to offset setbacks caused by COVID-19? In many cases, investigators were forced to put research on hold during the pandemic. Ideally, lessons learned, including the power of collaboration, data sharing, and interdisciplinary approaches will accelerate the pace of development and make up for lost time. Not every health challenge is a public health crisis, but for affected patients and their families, time is of the essence.

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This content was produced by Boston Globe Media's Studio/B and paid for by the advertiser. The news and editorial departments of The Boston Globe had no role in its production or display.