- Getty Images/Kimberly White
- The consumer genetics company 23andMe is teaming up with the UK drug giant GlaxoSmithKline to develop new drugs.
- As part of a four-year collaboration, GSK is committing $300 million to 23andMe and, using 23andMe’s data, working on an experimental drug to treat Parkinson’s disease.
- The move comes shortly after GSK brought in a new chief scientific officer and as the drug giant unveils its new research-and-deveolopment strategy.
The pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline just made a $300 million bet in a consumer genetics company’s ability to find new treatments for patients.
On Wednesday, GSK entered into a planned four-year drug-development collaboration with 23andMe. Using 23andMe’s data, GSK is also working on an experimental drug to treat Parkinson’s disease in patients with a particular mutation.
The announcement came as part of GSK’s second-quarter earnings announcement and its attempts to refresh its research-and-development strategy. In 2017, GSK brought on Hal Barron, a former Genentech and Calico executive, as its chief scientific officer and president of R&D. GSK said Wednesday that it planned to focus its research efforts on developing new treatments that act on the body’s immune system.
Drug development may seem like an unusual strategy for a company like 23andMe, which is best known for its genetics tests designed to tell you information as varied as the amount of Neanderthal DNA you have and potential health risks. But already, 23andMe has partnered with major pharmaceutical companies like Lundbeck and Pfizer, which hope to use the company’s data to develop their own drugs. And in 2015, 23andMe started getting into drug development on its own, hiring a former Genentech executive, Richard Scheller, to lead the team. Scheller and GSK’s Barron were colleagues at Genentech.
The idea is to use the genetic information 23andMe has gathered from users who consent to share their information and use that to build therapies. The people who opt in to sharing their data – that’s about 80% of users – are asked to answer survey questions about their health and habits. Those answers then feed research into links between genetics and certain conditions. If certain genes stand out, they could become targets that 23andMe goes after with a drug. Ideally, that drug could then be studied in clinical trials, possibly on people who participated in the initial research who have that condition.
“We’re a tiny biotech, but our goal is, rather than discover drugs based off of animal models, we’re going to discover drugs based off of data from human beings,” Emily Drabant-Conley, the vice president of business development at 23andMe, told Business Insider in 2017. “And hopefully that will help us to be more successful in creating more therapies.”
Scheller said on a call with reporters Wednesday that while 23andMe had made some progress identifying new drugs since then, it still had far to go.
“We thought it was now the right time to team up with a large global organization that has a number of feasibilities way beyond what our still nascent group at 23andme is able to do,” Scheller said.
For example, GSK already has a drug target identified to use in the collaboration, an experimental treatment for Parkinson’s disease that acts on a particular mutation. Barron said Wednesday that 23andMe had already identified 250 people with Parkinson’s who have this mutation in their database, which could make the process of enrolling a clinical trial much faster than if GSK were to go it alone.
Scheller said 23andMe had been looking at numerous disease areas including autoimmune conditions, liver disease, and osteoarthritis.
GSK isn’t the only drugmaker tapping into other sources of data. In June, the Swiss drug giant Roche acquired the rest of Foundation Medicine, a company that collects genetic data from samples of cancer tissue or blood, for $2.4 billion a few months after it acquired Flatiron Health, another cancer data company, for $1.9 billion.
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