An Open Source System for Medical Research

The Vision Behind Sage Bionetworks

Stephen Friend is a biomedical researcher hoping to change the field of biomedical science with his new project, Sage Bionetworks. His goal is to speed up the process of drug and therapy development by creating a database that would store enormous amounts of data on the biology of diseases like cancer and diabetes.

Sage works similar to Wikipedia in that it is designed as a large database where drug companies, academics, clinicians, and patients would share genomic and biomedical information freely. This in turn would aid the research and collaboration of scientists looking for therapies and cures. “What I realized was that drug discovery would continue to be consistently hampered by the lack of good models of disease. And to build those models was going to take massive amounts of data being shared over many iterations, over decades,” Friend states.

Friend has spent the past few decades working in labs that bring him face to face with the current obstacles facing scientific medical discoveries. Friend started out with a doctorate in biophysics, working as a pediatric oncologist, and eventually moved to Seattle to work with Leland Hartwell of the Hutchinson Center. He later teamed up with Leroy Hood at the University of Washington in Seattle to found the biotech company Rosetta Inpharmatics. After Merck bought the company in 2001, Friend was named director of oncology drug development as part of the deal. Working in this department, Friend realized that the data available for many diseases did not sufficiently address the genetic diversity of humans, or the subtypes of many diseases. He found Sage Networks with the hope that once developed, it will give researchers access to a wide variety of data — from hundreds of thousands of patients — and speed up the findings of disease therapies and cures.

Now a successful enterprise, Sage has 35 staff members and a $5 million budget. Along with promoting collaboration between academics and companies, Sage is also in the process of creating an online repository for data sets, real time computer models of diseases, and gathering data from drug companies.

Although scientists in general laud Friend’s efforts, Sage has encountered some setbacks such as insufficient data, and being denied access to information due to strict patient consent forms. A number of drug companies have also been unable to share data because of the nature of their consent forms. Undeterred by this setback, Friend has already started to create an online consent form, which gives individuals control over what scientific studies use their genomic and health data. Although Sage is a young project, there is promise in its continual evolution: “We are not under the illusion that our solution has to be what happens,” Friend explains, “claiming success for specific projects is not the objective, but rather…[being the] catalyst for others doing it.”