Sage Bionetworks, the Seattle-based nonprofit seeking to spark a movement toward open-source style sharing of biological data, is announcing today it has secured a partnership with Pfizer, the world’s largest pharmaceutical company.
Financial terms, and the length of the collaboration, aren’t being disclosed. But the deal will bring in enough cash for Sage to add some new faces to its 15-person staff inside the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. The plan is to build computational models that can be used to help discover new targets for cancer drugs, and which may help predict which patients are likely to benefit in clinical trials.
“It’s something real,” says Stephen Friend, the president and founder of Sage, when asked about the deal’s significance.
Sage’s vision is to build models that connect the dots between abnormalities in genes, the proteins that arise from genetic code, and the clinical symptoms of disease that are more easily observed in patients. These “network biology” models will be used to help identify new targets for cancer drugs, and help Pfizer determine which experimental cancer drugs in its pipeline are likely to work, or cause toxic side effects, for patients in clinical trials.
The partnership with Pfizer (NYSE: PFE) is the latest external vote of confidence in the fledgling nonprofit that Friend started last March. Friend left his high-profile job as senior vice president of cancer research at Merck, after securing $5 million in commitments from anonymous donors behind Sage. In an August profile in Xconomy, Friend talked about how Merck donated $150 million worth of intellectual property to start the effort. Since then, Sage has disclosed that it has gained additional support from Quintiles, the giant contract research firm, the Canary Fund, which supports early diagnostic testing for cancer, and the Cure Huntington’s Disease Initiative.
For those who missed the earlier stories, here’s some background on what Sage is about. As I wrote back in October, Sage wants biologists to drop their traditional attitudes about keeping raw experimental data hidden, and instead pool the data in the public domain. This kind of collaborative is needed, Friend has said, because biologists are starting to see how vast networks of genes get perturbed in complex diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s, and rheumatoid arthritis. All of this data is too complex for any individual or team of scientists to manage-even at a place as wealthy as Friend’s former employer.
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 media 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.
Since this cuts against so many deeply ingrained cultural traditions, Friend has encountered his share of skepticism. One fallacy he’s heard is that Sage is a stealthy “Merck project” to benefit Friend’s former employer. He’s hopeful that cutting the deal with Pfizer will help lay that notion to rest.
“A lot of people have wondered whether any pharmaceutical company would be interested in Sage Bionetworks, or whether it was just a few academics and Merck,” Friend says. “To our minds, this validates us.”
Still, I can imagine this deal opening up Sage to some criticism for backing away a bit from its pure open-source collaborative mission. The data that Sage and Pfizer generate from their partnership will get dumped into Sage’s public data repository, but not until one year after a given project concludes, Friend says. That sounds like it would give Pfizer scientists a pretty sizable head start over other biologists—exactly what you’d expect from a profit-driven organization that wants to keep a lot of its research proprietary.
Our conversation was a bit rushed, so I didn’t have as much time as I’d normally like to question Friend on the details of this arrangement and how it balances Pfizer’s interests with those of the biological research world, and Sage’s need for support. But Friend insisted that Pfizer was comfortable with the way Sage has structured the deal, knowing that the computing models and data will be released into the public domain.
“People are excited to work with us knowing that it’s going in the public domain and that other eyes will be able to help build on it,” Friend says.
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