When pharmacologist Ravindra Ghooi learned in 1996 that his mother had terminal breast cancer, he began to investigate whether he could obtain morphine, in case she needed pain relief at the end of her life. But a morphine prescription in India at that time, even for the dying, was a rare thing: most states required four or five different licences to buy painkillers such as morphine, and there were harsh penalties for minor administrative errors. Few pharmacies stocked opioids and it was a rare doctor who held the necessary paperwork to prescribe them. Ghooi, who is now a consultant at Cipla Palliative Care and Training Centre in Pune, used his connections to ask government and industry officials if there was a straightforward way of obtaining morphine for his mother. “Everybody agreed to give me morphine,” he recalls, “but they said they’d give it to me illegally.”
He didn’t know it at the time, but when chemist Matthew Todd posted a request for help on The Synaptic Leap, a website devoted to open-source biomedical research, he was sowing the seeds for a rivalry between an open initiative and a contract-research organization hired by the World Health Organization to reach the same goal.
The aim of both projects, run in 2010, was to produce a safer, low-cost version of praziquantel, a treatment for the tropical parasitic infection schistosomiasis. Up until that point, the treatment contained two enantiomers (mirror-image versions of the molecule that have slightly different properties) of praziquantel. One enantiomer has no effect on the parasite, but gives the drug a bitter taste. Eliminating this undesirable form could reduce side effects and help more patients to complete their treatment. The pure drug needed to be affordable. Todd, who is at the University of Sydney in Australia, thought that an open project was the best way to achieve this. “Open is very well-suited for neglected diseases,” he says. “The pay-off of secrecy is not very large.” Continue reading
The hum of Gurumoorthy Sethuraman’s 10-horsepower (7.46 kW) irrigation pumps joins the murmur of nearby rivers in Arayapuram, India. Sethuraman, an experienced and successful farmer, plants alternating crops of rice and pulses each year in the southeast Indian state of Tamil Nadu. This bounty has enabled his family to send several of his grandchildren to study abroad in the United States and United Kingdom. Yet, by law, he and other commercial agriculture enterprise owners are not required to pay the utility that powers the 60 or so wells that irrigate his 15 hectares of land.
Sethuraman is representative of the fortunate few around the world —the International Monetary Fund reported in 2013 that the top 40% of the population in most developing countries received six times the energy subsidy received by the bottom 40% (http://go.nature.com/w1qdII). In the short run, he and others are direct beneficiaries, but in the long run, misdirected energy subsidies undermine economic development, according to economists at the International Energy Agency (http://go.nature.com/rPzFNR), the World Bank (http://go.nature.com/RJMxmO) and the International Monetary Fund (http://go.nature.com/E2wjfP). Such policies amount to an undeclared regressive tax that undermines investment in infrastructure, health and education for the poorest citizens. Of 40 countries examined during a Council on Foreign Relations workshop last year, for example, the average energy subsidy approached 30% of government revenue and was often greater than health or education spending (http://go.nature.com/pt37o7).
Yet India is in the midst of an energy subsidy reform. It began reducing its own energy subsidies in 2010 and has earned outside recognition for its progress so far (http://go.nature.com/qAbZkw). Its path to an energy policy that supports its poorest people will be long and complex, but it may now be experiencing a remarkable moment of opportunity to widen access to energy.
Ever since humanity began to farm our own food, we’ve faced an unpredictable frenemy: rain. It comes and goes without much warning, and a field of lush leafy greens one year can crackle, dry up and blow away the next. Food security and fortunes depend on rain, and nowhere more so than in Africa, where 96% of farmland depends on rain instead of the irrigation common in more-developed places. It has consequences: South Africa’s ongoing drought — the worst in three decades — will cost it at least a quarter of its corn crop this year.
Biologist Jill Farrant (TED Talk: How we can make crops survive without water) of the University of Cape Town in South Africa says that nature has plenty of answers for people who want to grow crops in places with unpredictable rainfall. She is hard at work finding a way to take traits from rare wild plants that adapt to extreme desiccation and use them in food crops. As the Earth’s climate changes and rainfall becomes even less predictable in some places, those answers will grow even more valuable. “The type of farming I’m aiming for is literally so that people can survive as it’s going to get more and more dry,” Farrant says. Continue reading