Inter-Pharma co-operation works – just look at the seventies

Cast your mind back to the nineteen seventies.  Think Glam Rock, Morecambe and Wise, Watney’s Red Barrel, the Ford Capri, endless strikes and every man sporting long hair, a dodgy tie and enormous sideburns.

Paul HadlandIn those turbulent times, many pharmaceutical companies were still managing some of their R&D information systems on paper.  Those that had moved to computer-based systems were tied to the mainframe, with little or no interactive access.  All updates and queries were performed in batch mode – apart from online searches of external systems, which were carried out mostly on teletypes.

And yet, even then, pharmaceutical companies were actively collaborating on an IT project that they believed would be of mutual benefit.

In the early seventies, ICI Plant Protection produced an index of 20,000 organic chemicals from a dozen or so supplier catalogues. Paper copies of this index were shown to a meeting of the UK chapter of the Chemical Notation Association (now the Chemical Structure Association), and an inter-company project was launched with the aim of producing a database of all organic chemical suppliers’ catalogues.  The name of the project was CAOCI: the Commercially Available Organic Chemicals Index.

Coding into Wisswesser Line Notation (WLN – a predecessor of SMILES) and punching (on to 80-column punch cards – the preferred input format) were carried out by UK and US R&D Information staff in six pharmaceutical companies: ICI, Wellcome, Glaxo, Boots,

Pfizer and Beecham.  ICI co-ordinated and consolidated the system using their internally developed software, CROSSBOW, and within 18 months produced printouts of Molecular Formula and WLN KWIC indexes which were easily decipherable by trained information scientists and some adventurous chemists – such folk existed, even then.

ICI sold the CROSSBOW system to its collaborators, who now had a standard product for substructure searching using bit, string and connection table searches – not so different from what is done today.  With CAOCI, they also had most organic chemical supplier catalogues on a single searchable database.

CAOCI went from strength to strength, suppliers began to get much more involved and it went on to be managed (along with CROSSBOW and other ICI database systems) by Fraser-Williams Scientific Systems. Later on, it was renamed the Fine Chemicals Directory, and after a couple of changes in ownership, became the Available Chemicals Directory (ACD).

ACD is still with us today, and is now owned by Accelrys. (For details please contact Keith Taylor ([email protected]).

So the principles underlying PISTOIA have a firm foundation, and there is a strong precedent for collaboration across the industry leading to enduring value.

Just ask any R&D chemist!

Now, here are some questions to (hopefully) stimulate discussion:

  • Are there any other examples of long-lived, successful collaborations?
  • Is today’s environment more hostile or more open to such initiatives?
  • What role should commercial partners play in cross-industry collaborations?
  • If CAOCI was launched from scratch today, what would it look like, and how would it operate?


S. Barrie Walker: J. Chem. Inf. Comput. Sci., 1983, 23 (1), pp 3–5

(Paul Hadland started working on CAOCI in 1978 and has been involved with Pharmaceuticals R&D ever since.)

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2 Responses to Inter-Pharma co-operation works – just look at the seventies

  1. Wendy Warr says:

    Development of CAOCI and its use in ICI plant protection division
    S. Barrie Walker, J. Chem. Inf. Comput. Sci., 1983, 23 (1), pp 3–5
    This paper by Barrie Walker arose from a talk given (by me, on Barrie’s behalf!) at a symposium on Uses and Application of the Wiswesser Line Notation Today during the 180th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society, Las Vegas, NV. The main proceedings appeared in the first issue of J. Chem. Inf. Model. in 1982. Barrie’s paper appeared in a later issue. (Shame, because Barrie’s paper encapsulated the sprit of CAOCI better than Murray Rosenberg’s did).

    Other papers in the symposium are listed below:
    Wiswesser, W. J. “How the WLN Began in 1949 and How It Might Be in 1999”.
    Warr, W. A., “Diverse Uses and Future Prospects for Wiswesser Line-Formula Notation”.
    Johns, T. M.; Clare, M. “Getting the Most Out of the WLN. WLN as a Structural Summary Medium”.
    [Walker, S. B. “Development of CAOCI and Its Use in the IC1 Plant Protection Division”. Presented at the 2nd Chemical Congress of the North American Continent, San Francisco, CA, Aug 1980; Abstract CINF 23.]
    Rosenberg, M. D.; DeBardeleben, M. Z.; DeBardeleben, J. F. “Chemical Supply Catalog Indexing: Now and the Future-an Ideal Place for Use of the Wiswesser Line Notation (WLN)”.
    Bond, V. B.; Bowman, C. M.; Davison, L. C.;f Roush, P. F.; Young, L. F. ‘Applications of the Wiswesser Line Notation at the Dow Chemical Company
    Fritts, L. E.; Schwind, M. M. ’Using the Wiswesser Line Notation (WLN) for Online, Interactive Searching of Chemical Structures”.
    Eakin, D. R. “Graphics Challenge WLN-Can WLN Hold Fast”.
    Coulson, H. J.; Sher, I. H. Luiso, K.; Lawlor, H.; Sarkisian, J. E. “WLN at ISI-Applications in Commercial Information Services”; unpublished.

    WLN was actually as good as dead by 1982 and some of us in the symposium knew that.

    In answer to Paul’s questions, I can’t think of any other examples of long-lived, successful collaborations. The CAOCI project was partly held together by the fact that most people used CROSSBOW, which was not commercially available, and everyone had an interest in standardising WLN through CNA.

    Yes, today’s environment is more hostile to such initiatives. In short, people don’t have time for voluntary work and companies don’t reward it or pay employees’ membership fees to CNA or whatever. That said, Pistoia is different from CAOCI and it is early days for Pistoia.

    Question 3 and 4 merit a separate post. Not sure when I’ll get round to it. I’m killing time at Chicago O’Hare right now.

  2. Mike Harwood says:

    Ah, the good old days! I remember well coding COBOL (yes, COBOL in a scientific application!) and ALGOL routines to maintain and mine WLN-based compound registries!
    But, to the topic of commercial partner collaborations today. I believe that these are still alive and well and would point to the large-scale co-operative activities taking place under the CDISC and PhUSE banners in the preclinical and clinical areas. The development of the SEND standard for electronic submissions and interoperability has seen an immense effort from a combined team of pharma, CRO, software vendor and regulator volunteers over several years. Similarly, the PhUSE projects are seeing both intense collaborative efforts amongst a diverse range of stakeholders as well as the provision of code and facilities to enable goals to be achieved.
    I could also point to the development of the HELM standard by Pistoia, built on work done initially by Pfizer and then taken on by a cross-industry team. This is another great contemporary example of an asset being developed and donated to the wider industry to advance our combined efforts to improve health.

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface here of a wide range of pre-competitive collaborative activities that manifest themselves in the activities of Pistoia Alliance, IMI and other initiatives with and without government support.
    So, I believe that the answer to question 3, is that cross-industry collaboration amongst commercial partners is alive and well.

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