Novartis teams with Broad, UCSF to discover drugs in microbiome data

(By Duisenberg (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Novartis ($NVS) has teamed up with the University of California, San Francisco, and the Broad Institute to mine microbiome data. The four-year, $8.1 million collaboration will use bioinformatics, synthetic biology and other tools to predict the chemical structures of compounds that can be made by microbiomes.

Dubbed the Novartis-Foundry Sequence-to-Molecule Pipeline, the research initiative will make use of a wide range of skill sets, with bioinformatics and synthetic biology being joined by natural products chemistry and high-throughput discovery assays on the list of capabilities it intends to deploy. To gain access to this breadth of tools and knowhow, Novartis has partnered with a clutch of big-name organizations. UCSF and Broad are part of the project. MIT and Harvard University, the organizations that helped to set up Broad, are listed as being involved with the project, too.

With this team in place and $8.1 million available over the next four years, the initiative intends to carry out work that leads to the discovery of new classes of pharmaceutical. The first step in this process is to predict the chemical structures of the tens of thousands of molecules that microbiomes can produce. Once the team members know the structures, they plan to assess how the molecules affect physiology and behavior, a process that could lead to insights into the development of new classes of pharmaceuticals.

News of the Novartis project was released as part of the unveiling of the National Microbiome Initiative (NMI), a White House-led project to support the study of microbiomes. The government is committing $121 million to the initiative, a sum that will be split between a handful of agencies. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has allocated a further $100 million to the program. As with other White House-led research programs, such as the Precision Medicine Initiative, the unveiling of NMI is being used to present a wide range of private projects, including the Novartis collaboration.

The other private projects include a One Codex initiative to create a public portal for microbiome data. Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ), which has taken a keen interest in the microbiome, also used the NMI release as an opportunity to discuss the work of its Janssen Human Microbiome Institute, details of which were first released in February 2015.

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