GSK, Sanofi enlist in a big genomics project aiming to map genes of half a million Finns

Several European countries, including Iceland and the Netherlands, have analyzed genomic information to study their populace. Two years ago, Finland began its very own large scale public-private genomics project – aimed at mapping the genomes of 500,000 citizens (or roughly 9% of the country’s population) to decode the origins of disease for prevention, diagnosis and treatment. GSK and Sanofi have now joined the effort, bringing the total number of pharmaceutical partners to nine.

The project, called FinnGen, utilizes blood samples from biobanks to chart genomic data and then analyzes it with information from national health records. It includes the participation of both academia and industry, such as the Finnish department of health, hospitals, universities as well as 7 other pharma companies: AbbVie, AstraZeneca, Biogen, Celgene, Roche’s Genentech, Merck and Pfizer. As of December 2018, 108,000 new biobank samples — including more than 15,000 cancer patients and over 30,000 patients with cardiometabolic diseases — had been collected, according to an announcement earlier this week.

The Finish project, led by the University of Helsinki, uses a genomic mapping approach called genome-wide association study (GWAS) genotyping, which is essentially designed to identify common variants that contribute to common diseases. These common variants are usually located in regions of the chromosome that don’t code for specific functional proteins. Meanwhile, England’s genome project uses a more comprehensive, albeit slower, approach called whole genome sequencing. This strategy look into regions of the chromosome that code for functional proteins and pinpoint mutations that can have a greater impact on disease.

England’s flagship genome project was announced in 2013 and five years later the target of sequencing 100,000 whole genomes from NHS patients with rare diseases, and their families, as well as patients with common cancers was achieved. However, last October the UK government announced the project would be expanded to sequence 1 million whole genomes in the coming five years.

Genomics England has also been working with companies who focus on drug discovery, pharmaceutical development and data analysis to put this genomic data to use. Their industry partners include Google, Microsoft and Iqvia, in addition to the usual pharma suspects, such as AstraZeneca, GSK, Roche and Takeda.

In December AstraZeneca sharpened its focus on genomics by pouring its R&D heft into a new center in partnership with Cancer Research UK, to develop personalized cancer drugs. Fellow British drugmaker GSK $GSK, has tied up with 23andMe to gain access to the latter’s database — to look for disease relevant genes. Across the Atlantic, Regeneron $REGN has carved out its own genetics centre, Amgen $AMGN has sharpened its ability to identify and validate disease targets with its investment in Oxford Nanopore Technologies and acquisition of deCODE genetics, while Vertex $VRTX has partnered with UK-based Genomics plc on their platform for genetics and machine learning.

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