Pfizer, deCode Genetics Strike Deal To Look For New Lupus Drug Targets

10/12/11Follow @xconomy

Companies like Pfizer that constantly need to develop new drugs never got much return on the investment in genomics a decade ago. But Pfizer is showing some renewed interest in genomics through a partnership being announced today with deCODE Genetics, the Iceland-based genomics company.

deCODE, a 15-year-old operation which Arch Venture Partners and Polaris Venture Partners lifted out of bankruptcy in January 2010, has been making a comeback of late. Today deCODE is announcing it has struck its first partnership with New York-based Pfizer (NYSE: PFE), the world’s largest drugmaker.

Financial terms of the deal aren’t being disclosed, but deCODE founder and CEO Kari Stefansson says his company will work for two years to search for variations in the genome that increase the risk of getting lupus, an autoimmune disease. The work could lead to new biological targets for drug development and help researchers develop companion diagnostics to select patients most likely to benefit from certain therapies.

“We are being well compensated for doing the work,” Stefansson says.

Stefansson adds that Pfizer had an internal champion of sorts for this project in David Cox, a geneticist formerly at Stanford University and with Perlegen, who Stefansson said is “a man who has a substantial competence in genetics.” But Pfizer isn’t the only major pharma company with renewed interest in genomic research, now that costs of sequencing entire human genomes has plummeted in recent years. “We are at the point where you can relatively easily collect a very large percentage of variants in genomes from large numbers of people to make discovery very reliable. The pharma industry has become very interested in the use of human genetics again.”

Kari Stefansson

Lupus, known formally as systemic lupus erythematosus, is an area of emerging interest in both the pharmaceutical industry and basic science. Rockville, MD-based Human Genome Sciences (NASDAQ: HGSI) and its partner GlaxoSmithKline won FDA approval earlier this year for an antibody drug that was the first new treatment for lupus in 56 years. Analysts predict this drug, belimumab (Benlysta), will become a $1 billion annual seller over time.

No one knows what causes the disease, but it disproportionately affects women. It occurs when the immune system attacks healthy tissues as if they are foreign invaders, like a virus, causing pain, swelling, and fatigue.

Researchers know that lupus tends to run in families, but aren’t sure which biochemical pathways get perturbed, and how that varies among individuals, Stefansson says. Now that sequencing has gotten so cheap, and a company like deCODE can combine that capability with extensive medical records and genealogy records in Iceland, the time is right to pursue questions like this, Stefansson says. “For us as geneticists, it’s an exciting one to work on,” he says.

deCODE, which has about 140 employees at its Iceland headquarters, announced last week that it has discovered a genetic variation that raises the risk of women getting ovarian cancer. That study looked at the whole genomes of 457 Icelanders, and found a rare variation in a gene called BLIP1 that was linked to an 8-fold higher risk of getting the cancer. The finding was published in Nature Genetics.

Discoveries like that one for a new ovarian cancer marker are part of what has persuaded Big Pharma companies to take a closer look at some of the work deCODE is doing, says Bob Nelsen, a managing director with Arch Venture Partners in Seattle.

“They clearly are becoming more interested, driven by some of deCODE’s rare variant discoveries like the ovarian cancer breakthrough last week,” Nelsen says.

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