Big Pharma joins the U.K.'s genomics project with eyes on drug discovery

A group of the world's leading drugmakers have joined the U.K.'s ambitious initiative to sequence the genomes of 100,000 Britons, mining the data with hopes of finding new pathways to treat cancer and rare diseases.

Under a yearlong project, the researchers at Genomics England are bringing in some industry heavyweights to pore over a portion of the genetic data they've gathered, hoping to develop a replicable model for effectively and securely collaborating in the future. Dubbed the Genomics Expert Network for Enterprises (GENE) Consortium, the group includes GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK), Roche ($RHHBY), AstraZeneca ($AZN), Biogen ($BIIB), AbbVie ($ABBV) and others.

Genomics England has thus far sequenced about 3,000 genomes toward its goal, and it's looping in industry at the ground floor in hopes of amplifying the project's returns. The plan, Executive Chairman John Chisholm said, is to spotlight new diagnostic avenues and therapeutic targets by taking a deep dive into the data on NHS patients, uniting the more than 4,000 U.K. researchers involved in the project with private-sector experts.

For the 10 early adopters, joining forces with Genomics England provides both a chance to shape the future of drug discovery and a near-term boon for R&D, GSK Senior Vice President Lon Cardon said.

"This project with Genomics England provides us with enormous opportunity to use genetic information to understand the causes of human disease," Cardon said in a statement. "This allows us to select better starting points for our work and we believe this could greatly improve our success rate in discovering new medicines."

The group also includes Takeda, Alexion Pharmaceuticals ($ALXN), Helomics, UCB and 2014 Fierce 15 honoree Dimension Therapeutics.

The U.K. effort is part of a global trend in collaborative genomics. This week, Amgen's ($AMGN) deCODE Genetics unveiled the results of a sweeping effort to sequence the genomes of thousands of Icelanders, and Regeneron ($REGN) is at work on a similar project. President Barack Obama turned heads around biopharma earlier this year with the announcement of the Precision Medicine Initiative, requesting an initial $215 million to kick-start a mass sequencing effort in the U.S.

- read the statement