GSK gives Altius $95M and a mission to hire computer scientists for 'living genome' research

Dr. John Stamatoyannopoulos

GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) is placing a $95 million wager on the significance of the "living genome," a term for the noncoding DNA that appear to regulate how genes function in different cells, states of disease and environments. The initiative will lean heavily on computer scientists, who will make up some of the 40 to 80 researchers that will be hired using the Glaxo funds.

Instead of funneling the money into an in-house program, Glaxo is using it to set up an independent, nonprofit research organization helmed by Dr. John Stamatoyannopoulos, one of the driving forces behind the ENCODE project that was heralded as a killer blow to the "junk DNA" theory. The Seattle, WA-based nonprofit, named Altius Institute for Biomedical Sciences, will use the money to build a 40- to 80-person research team to probe the cellular operating system in search new drug targets. Glaxo has first dibs on any discoveries Altius makes and an option to spinout startups based on its science.

The arrangement represents a punt on a speculative, untested area of biology but Glaxo has serious expectations for the project. "The aim here is to reduce the time that it takes to make a medicine, to reduce the attrition--the failures that we have along the way--and to reduce the cost. And at the back end, we'll reduce all the things that are negative and increase the probability of having something that really matters for patients," Glaxo's SVP of alternative discovery and development, Lon Cardon, said on a corporate video to explain the project.

If Glaxo can even partly realize this ambition, it will provide a major boost to its stuttering business. Finding out whether the bet has paid off will take time. The first step is for Stamatoyannopoulos to build out a team of molecular biologists, chemists, and computer scientists to work out of digs in Seattle that are scheduled to be up and running later this year, Forbes reports. Computer scientists will apply their skills to figure out what does what in the living genome, while researchers will use robotics provided by Glaxo to further the same goal.

- read Forbes' article
- watch the GSK video
- here's FierceBiotech's take
- and the statement

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