The speed of Next Generation Sequencing now enables us to read every letter of every gene from DNA samples of patients in medical research. This is a significant advance on previous technology, which could only detect common differences between people at a much less precise level. For the first time, it is possible to uncover very rare differences between individuals – even ones found in only a single individual. These rare differences are what scientists believe lie behind common disease like asthma, diabetes and common cancers and could answer the question: “Given humans are all very alike, why do some get sick and some stay healthy?”
A unique partnership
AstraZeneca believes that embedding genomics across its research and development platforms will deliver novel insights into the biology of diseases and enable the identification of new targets for medicines. It will also support the selection of patients for clinical trials and allow patients to be matched with treatments more likely to benefit them.
As a result, the company entered into a long-term partnership with Human Longevity Inc. (HLI) in April 2016 to harness the power of genomic data as part of the launch of its integrated genomics initiative to drive the discovery and development of novel medicines across AstraZeneca’s main therapy areas. HLI is a company founded by Dr. Craig Venter, a pioneer in human genomics. HLI is creating one of the most comprehensive genomic databases available in the world, comprised of up to one million integrated health records including whole genome, phenotype and clinical data. HLI is also a world-leader in machine learning, pattern recognition and analytical techniques to help interpret genomic data.
The collaboration aims to drive new drug target and biomarker identification and identify specific patients who can respond to treatment. It is unprecedented in scale and scope – the partnership will focus on the genomic sequencing and analysis of hundreds of thousands of samples drawn from AstraZeneca’s clinical trials over the next ten years.
Strategically, the partnership means that validation of targets and biomarkers and personalised medicine can begin and end in humans. For many centuries pharma R&D has relied on pre-clinical models for validation – models that are consistent only in their inconsistency in predicting human disease related events. To have information from human genetics coupled to human phenotypic data that leads to treatments in human diseases means there is less need to translate across species to build confidence in drug discovery approaches. Diseases are often polygenic – caused by a number of gene sequences – and this collaboration will be able to mine out these complexities and point to areas of converging biology where interventional tactics can be applied.
Patient privacy at the forefront
Protecting patients’ privacy is a responsibility that both partners take very seriously and the commitment to maintaining privacy forms a central theme of the collaboration.
AstraZeneca and HLI have set up a number of combined precautions that work to ensure no one who donates a genomic sample for this initiative will be identified from either their genomic or their clinical data.
- Data access: there are strict rules to restrict access to sensitive data, so that researchers who work with patients’ genomic data are not able to access their personal details.
- Data security: the database is protected by robust, state of the art security measures.
- De-identification: Data fields will be removed or aggregated to reduce the risk of identification while preserving the scientific value of the research.
As partners, AstraZeneca and HLI will also ensure that each individual who donates a genomic sample to this initiative has given their consent to do so. Patients already have to give their consent when taking part in a clinical trial, however, AstraZeneca will seek their further optional consent to use samples they provide for genomics research, so that patients can make a properly informed choice.
A commitment to innovation
AstraZeneca and HLI have a shared commitment to develop the most innovative and impactful treatments for patients. By utilising each other’s complimentary expertise and capabilities, the two companies are able to collaborate on an innovative approach that is directly geared to patient benefit.
The collaboration will help build HLI’s extensive expertise in sequencing genomes and enable it to advance the understanding of this data in ways that have not been possible before. By accessing AstraZeneca’s samples, it will also be able to drastically expand its existing genomics database.
The partnership also has the potential to transform AstraZeneca’s drug discovery and development. The deal forms a key element of its recently announced initiative whereby, in addition to working with HLI, it is forming new collaborations with the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, UK, and The Institute for Molecular Medicine, Finland.
AstraZeneca has also established an in-house Centre for Genomics Research which will develop a bespoke database comprising genome sequences from an unprecedented two million samples donated by patients in its clinical trials together with associated clinical and drug response data. Ultimately, data from these genome sequences and associated phenotypic data will mean a better understanding of the underlying drivers of disease and as a result more effective treatments for patients.
AstraZeneca’s partnership with Human Longevity won the 2016 Scrip Awards’ Best Partnership Alliance of the Year category – a fringe event of the Genesis conference taking place in London today.
Written by Iain Comley, Business Development Director, Scientific Partnering and Alliances, AstraZeneca
The One Nucleus blog is written by individuals and is not necessarily a reflection of the views held by One Nucleus.