Sage Bionetworks, Biology’s Open Source Spark, Snags “Major” Donation from Quintiles

10/6/09Follow @xconomy

[Updated: 10/05/09, 7:05 pm Pacific] Sage Bionetworks, the Seattle-based nonprofit seeking to spark an open source movement for biology, has secured a “major founding donation” from Durham, NC-based Quintiles, the giant contract research organization for pharmaceutical and biotech companies.

Sage didn’t disclose how much the donation is worth in its statement announcing the news. But Friend, the founder of Rosetta Inpharmatics and former senior vice president of cancer research at Merck, said he had received $5 million of commitments from anonymous donors when he first publicly unveiled the Sage effort back in March.

Friend provided more detail on the fledgling nonprofit during an August interview, saying that Merck had donated $150 million worth of intellectual property, and that Sage had set up offices at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center with 15 employees. At that time, Friend said that the Cure Huntington’s Disease Initiative was one of the original anonymous donors.

[Updated with new comment from Friend] When reached by phone a couple hours after the Quintiles donation was announced, Friend said he was in the U.K. meeting with people from Nature, Cancer Research U.K., the Wellcome Trust, and the National Cancer Research Initiative to see what role researchers there might be able to play in helping shape Sage. From there, he said he plans to head to Germany.

Sage is worth watching because it aspires to do no less than shake up the culture of biology. It wants biologists to cast away traditional attitudes toward keeping raw experimental data close to the vest, and instead pool data in a common, shared database for researchers around the world. This kind of collaborative is needed, Friend contends, because biologists are starting to see how vast networks of genes get perturbed in complex diseases like cancer, diabetes, and multiple sclerosis. All of this data is too complex for any individual, or team of scientists—even at a place as wealthy as Merck—to fully grasp. Yet researchers scattered around the world are capturing huge volumes of genomic data on their computers, hoping it will someday be fodder for discovery. If Sage can convince scientists to contribute to the database, and get them collaborating through social networking mediums like Twitter and Facebook have done, then Sage hopes biologists might be able to speed up the pace of discovery of more effective drugs, just like open-source computing can create better software.

Stephen Friend

Stephen Friend

“There is a critical need to provide this access because genomic data has the potential to move the discovery side of the pharmaceutical industry away from the traditional competitive model toward consortium-style, pre-competitive collaborations,” Friend said in today’s statement.

Quintiles said it is supporting Sage not just as a charity, but partly as a way to keep its edge sharp in business. “While this is a donation on our part, we also see it as an investment in the future of biopharmaceutical development, as Quintiles seeks to work with customers as an ally during a period of intense change for the industry,” the company said.

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