AstraZeneca unveils genomics collaboration to aid drug discovery


AstraZeneca has launched a new 'integrated genomics approach' to expand the genetic basis of its research, and aid drug discovery and development.

One of the biggest genomics-based initiatives ever launched by a pharma company, the project will see the sequencing of around two million human genomes through collaboration with research partners.

These will be US-based Human Longevity (HLI), the UK's Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute (WTSI), and the Institute for Molecular Medicine (FIMM) in Finland.

The company has highlighted four key objectives for the project: delivering new insights into the biology of diseases, helping identify new medicinal targets, supporting patient selection for clinical trials, and allowing the matching of patients to treatments more likely to benefit them than standard therapy.

HLI will be responsible for full genome sequencing from a database of up to 500,000 DNA samples provided to them by AZ from clinical trials. HLI will also make use of its machine learning and analytical techniques to further analyse full genomes for pattern in genetic variation. In return, HLI will be given access to AZ's extensive genomics database comprised of 1 million health records.

The WTSI will gain a genomics expert-led research team based at its renowned Genome Centre in Cambridge. AZ will supply the WTSI with genomic and associated clinical data as well as AZ's own drug development expertise. The WTSI's main focus will be on creating diagnostic tests through the identification of new biological targets.

The FIMM offers a national health record system that includes data from a population with a known higher than normal frequency of rare genetic variants. The FIMM will therefore focus on genetic variants specific to the Finnish population.

"Using the power of genomics is the foundation of our ambition to develop the most innovative and impactful treatments for patients," said Mene Pangalos, Executive Vice President of Innovative Medicines & Early Development at AstraZeneca, "With the advent of next generation sequencing and the increased sophistication of data analysis, the time is now right to immerse ourselves fully in the international genomics community through these pioneering collaborations and through the creation of our own genome centre."

Bahija Jallal, Executive Vice President of AZ's global biologics R&D division MedImmune, also commented on the new project, describing the collaborative analysis of vast amounts of genomic data as an opportunity for a "better understanding of disease and ultimately, more effective treatments for patients."

Aside from AZ's recent expansion of its gene testing into a wider range of diseases, most notably including heart disease and asthma, of particular interest is HLI's involvement. A pioneer of genetic sequencing, Craig Venter's company has been enjoying a period of substantial growth which will continue following the recent announcement of a highly successful $220 million series B funding round.

AstraZeneca will also establish a new in-house Centre for Genomics Research in order to build a bespoke genomics database. Data from clinical trial participants from the past 15 and the next 10 years will be integrated into the database alongside clinical and drug response data.

Marco Ricci

22 April, 2016