Amgen ($AMGN) has provided further evidence that its $415 million bet on deCode Genetics’ trove of genomic data can pay off. The latest validation of the deal, which prompted some head scratching when it was inked in 2012, is the discovery of a genetic variation associated with a 34% reduction in the risk of coronary artery disease.
DeCode, a genomic research shop that filed for bankruptcy in 2009 before bouncing back, identified the variant by sifting through the repository of data it generated by sequencing people in its home country of Iceland. The data dive linked a 12-base-pair deletion in the gene ASGR1 to a 9% reduction in non-HDL cholesterol compared to the general population. A subsequent analysis of 21,000 people of European descent backed up the finding, while a return to a larger set of Icelandic genomes revealed another variant that is linked to an even larger drop in non-HDL cholesterol.
The discovery of the new biochemical pathway led to the publication of a paper in The New England Journal of Medicine, and, more importantly from the perspective of Amgen’s $415 million bet, has also sparked an R&D program. If Amgen can identify a drug that mimics the mutation by blocking the effects of ASGR1 and, in doing so, makes the reductions in non-HDL cholesterol and risk of heart attack associated with the variant more widely available--which at this stage is a big "if"--it could have a significant product on its hands. This process is already well underway.
“If everything were to go perfectly, which it rarely does, we would be in a position to get a molecule into the clinic in around two years,” Amgen R&D Chief Sean Harper told Forbes. Harper, who took up the post at the top of Amgen’s R&D operation shortly before the deCode acquisition, is an advocate of the idea that database-driven target discovery can cut the time it takes to bring drugs to market.
Since Amgen committed $415 million to that idea for the deCode acquisition, other biopharma firms have stepped up their activities in the field. Regeneron Pharmaceuticals ($REGN), which, like Amgen, has benefited from the discovery of the PCSK9 gene, is working to sequence the genomes of 100,000 people, while Roche’s ($RHHBY) Genentech and AstraZeneca ($AZN) have independently teamed up with J. Craig Venter’s Human Longevity, Inc. for their own data-generation drives.