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Biotech and Pharma

Drugs companies unite to mine genetic data

Andrew Ward

Several of the world's biggest pharmaceuticals companies have formed a partnership with Genomics England in the first step towards using genetic data from NHS patients in medical research.

GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca, the two biggest UK drugs groups, will team up with rivals, including Roche of Switzerland and AbbVie and Biogen of the US, to mine information from a government project to decode the genomes of 100,000 patients with cancer and rare diseases.

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The 10-strong consortium will carry out a year-long trial aimed at bringing industry expertise to the project and finding ways to use the genetic data to aid discovery of more personalised medicines.

So far, about 3,000 genomes have been sequenced during the project's pilot stage, with a target to reach 100,000 by 2017, creating what would be the world's largest database of the DNA code in human cells.

This should help researchers discover genetic mutations linked to certain diseases, which could in turn aid development of genetically targeted treatments.

Sir John Chisholm, executive chairman of Genomics England, the state-owned company set up to run the project, said industry participation was crucial if the data were to produce benefits for patients.

He made clear that safeguards were in place to ensure patient data were made anonymous.

Last year, the government was forced to postpone a plan to make patient records from hospitals and family doctors available to researchers through a scheme called Care. Data after a backlash from privacy campaigners.

The 100,000 Genomes Project is different in that it involves people who have volunteered to take part. Sir John said most were keen for their data to be used in research that might lead to a cure.

Red flags for biotech

Nonetheless, he said, drug companies would only be allowed access to the data in a tightly controlled way, describing the project as "more like a reading library than a lending library".

Martin Mackay, head of research and development at Alexion, a US biotech company taking part in the consortium, said the scheme had the potential to "accelerate the understanding of the genetic basis of rare diseases and ultimately lead to improved diagnostics and treatments".

The other members of the alliance — called the Gene Consortium — are UCB of Belgium, Takeda of Japan, and Dimension Therapeutics and Helomics of the US.

Genomics England will also announce partnerships with scientists and academic institutions in another move to make its database available to researchers.

The 100,000 Genomes Project is part of efforts by the government to use the NHS and its wealth of medical data to attract international medical research and life sciences investment.

Sir John is a veteran of the software and engineering industries who oversaw the privatisation of Qinetiq, the government's defence technology service business.

"I spent a large amount of my working life in the microelectronic revolution which [changed] the 20th century," he told the Financial Times. "Genetics [is] going to change the world in the 21st century."

Genomics England could play an important role, he added, in the shift towards more personalised medicines to tackle the genetic defects of individual patients.

"We will look back on how we used to pour pills down our necks as being not much different to how we look back on bleeding someone who has a fever."

Another large genomic database has been built by 23andMe, a Google-backed Californian company that sells $99 DNA testing kits.

But the 100,000 Genomes project promises a much richer resource because, unlike 23andMe, it is sequencing whole genomes rather than just fragments.