Scientists at the Tropical Disease Initiative have proposed a sort of open source approach to drug discovery. The idea being that there are tons of rare tropical diseases affecting (if not killing) thousands (if not millions) of people every year but there are no drugs being developed to treat them because there is no profit margin. And they're absolutely right.
Now before you bleeding heart liberals go into apoplectic shock assailing the evils of the drug industry, think for a minute. They are a business. They can't very well invest ten to twenty years and hundreds of millions of dollars developing the latest and greatest wonder drug only to turn around and give it away. If you think they can, then by all means, start your own company and do just that. I assure if you give away your product, you'll win market share. It just doesn't work like that. There's a reason we have tons of drugs for cholesterol, arthritis, sexual dysfunction, acid reflux and the like. Because they can be marketed to huge populations--populations with money to burn. Likewise, the reason we don't see drugs for all these rare tropical diseases is simply because there's no market--there may be people suffering from them, but if they can't afford the drugs, then that's not a market.
Anyway, these scientists at TDI believe the problem is all in the patents. While patented drugs are cetainly more expensive, there's more to it than that. Patent or no patent, drugs are insanely expensive to develop, so even if you can reduce costs by forgoing patent protection, somebody still has got to come along and manufacture and distribute the drug--again, more money down the tubes. The only way for non-patented drug to make money is if they can be sold in huge numbers--like in every supermarket and pharmacy in America. And even then, the people you're selling to have got to have at least some discretionary income to afford them.
Again, if you think otherwise, go start up a not-for-profit drug company--good luck. Heck, I'll be graduating with a degree in chemistry soon--I'll come work for you. But you will have to pay me--and there's the kicker. While it's an interesting idea and a noble cause to be sure, I don't see how this can work.