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.

In 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 (

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.)

Posted in Pistoia Alliance Blog.

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