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AstraZeneca partners its way to a genomic bounty

AstraZeneca will embed a research team at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge, U.K.

Magnus Manske/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

AstraZeneca partners its way to a genomic bounty

Pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca is joining forces with several heavy hitters in genetic sequencing to mine up to 2 million people’s genomes for new drug targets. The London-based company today launched an in-house genomics center that will swap data and samples with Human Longevity Inc. (HLI)—geneticist J. Craig Venter’s ambitious genomics startup—and will embed a research team in the United Kingdom’s Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. The company expects that whole genomes, combined with individual health data, will reveal rare genetic variants that influence disease and suggest new drug targets.

Given that only about 100,000 people in the world have had their entire genomes sequenced to date, the new resource would be unprecedented, says geneticist Eric Topol of the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, California, who is not involved in the partnership. Other pharma companies have made big investments in genomic data. Amgen’s 2012 takeover of deCODE Genetics’s 140,000-person volunteer database  was “somewhat of a precursor to this,” Topol says, but was limited to an Icelandic population and didn’t include whole genomes for every participant. “This is about finally getting some horsepower to get us to the big data, whole genome level,” he says.

Many in the field hope such horsepower will jumpstart a field that has promised for more than a decade to find drugs based on disease-causing mutations. “I think we have to be clear and admit that the realization of those promises has taken a lot longer than a lot of people were expecting,” said David Goldstein, a human geneticist at Columbia University and a scientific adviser to AstraZeneca,in a press conference today. “I personally really do believe that we finally have … turned a corner.”

Under the arrangement, HLI will sequence an anticipated 500,000 samples from participants in AstraZeneca’s clinical trials, and share its own planned million-genome collection. (Venter said that the company already has 26,000 complete genomes with corresponding clinical data, and adds another about every 15 minutes.) Without large databases of whole genomes or exomes, the protein-coding part of the genome, the search for drug targets has so far revealed only common variants with little influence on disease, and genetic research has “tapped out its tools,” he explained. “It’s the rare variants in all of us that determine our traits.”

The partnership also includes the University of Helsinki’s Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland, which will offer up for analysis thousands of sequenced genomes and samples from its biobank, accompanied by records compiled in the country’s healthcare system. AstraZeneca researchers can choose a gene of interest and search the Finnish population for variants associated with diseases, or identify particular safety concerns in treating patients with a given mutation.

Meanwhile, AstraZeneca plans to assemble a scientific team based at the Sanger Institute and led by one of its employees, to identify drug targets from its data. As the Sanger Institute’s Director Mike Stratton explained at today’s press conference, the new team will “walk the corridors of AstraZeneca” and “open the doors between the two intellectual worlds.”

That cozy arrangement could prove complicated for the institute, says Eric Campbell, a sociologist who studies relationships between academia and industry at Harvard University. “Industry relationships have very documented benefits … but the risks are big for an institution,” he says. He wonders whether the AstraZeneca’s presence will shift the Sanger Institute’s research toward drug discovery-minded projects, for example, and whether researchers will be free to publish results that reveal potential harm or risks from AstraZeneca’s products. 

AstraZeneca did not disclose any financial details of the agreement, but Venter revealed in a closing comment that the arrangement had taken a year of negotiations: “You make babies faster than you can make a genome collaboration.”