Big Pharma players team with NIH to build a diabetes genomics database

NIH Director Francis Collins

Diabetes is a big, looming issue for the U.S. healthcare system, with one in three people either already having it or at high risk of developing the disease. Answers about how best to treat these patients could be hidden in genetic data, but analyzing the information is a daunting task. In recognition of this, a collection of Big Pharma companies are teaming up to share the burden.

The initiative sees Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ), Eli Lilly ($LLY), Merck ($MRK), Pfizer ($PFE) and Sanofi ($SNY) partner with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and two nonprofits to research diabetes. Each company will contribute scientists, data and resources to the $58 million, 5-year project that aims to create a Type 2 diabetes knowledge portal. The portal will bring together DNA sequences, functional genomic and epigenomic information and clinical data for analysis by academics and industry.

By pairing genetic data with clinical records and information on gene expression, the initiative hopes to understand the genomic changes that raise the risk of developing diabetes. Ultimately the work could lead to new drug targets, but the 5 Big Pharma partners are barred from using discoveries made in the collaboration in their own research until the data is released to the public. NIH has set up similar collaborations with a pool of 10 drugmakers to research Alzheimer's, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. 

Collaboration has become more common in recent years--with Big Pharma consortium TransCelerate BioPharma alone running 5 initiatives--but the NIH-led diabetes project is still unusual. It appears the companies agreed to the arrangement after recognizing that the challenge of deciphering diabetes is too big to tackle alone. "[The work] could not be done by any single organization. Even the NIH, with all of its might, doesn't have all of the solutions inside it," Sanofi R&D chief Elias Zerhouni told The Wall Street Journal.

- read the WSJ article (sub. req.)
- check out FierceBiotech's take
- here's the NIH press release
- and its project outline