GlaxoSmithKline budgets $95M to launch a 'living genome' drug research institute

John Stamatoyannopoulos

Following up on earlier research initiatives related to genetics and drug development, the struggling GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) is committing more than $95 million in cash and added resources over the next 5 years to launch a new nonprofit institute in Seattle that will explore the "living genome" for new insights into the ways that cells function in search of a new generation of drugs to put into the clinic.

John Stamatoyannopoulos, an investigator at the University of Washington School of Medicine, will run the Altius Institute for Biomedical Sciences and plans to recruit anywhere from 40 to 80 staffers to start work at a new facility on Seattle's waterfront. That places him squarely in the middle of a rich complex of research groups in the region, including the renowned Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Center.

Stamatoyannopoulos is quick to point out that this isn't some new DNA sequencing operation. His focus on the living genome concentrates on the genetic machinery inside the cell. And he and his staff will be concentrating on identifying new drug targets and drugs for projects involving immuno-oncology, cancer, respiratory ailments and more that GlaxoSmithKline will have a first option to acquire.

"All the information coming to light needs to translate in the clinic," says Stamatoyannopoulos. This is a field that hasn't had aggressive support at the NIH, he adds, noting that his plan is to "function as a top-tier institute."

This is not a philanthropic exercise, insists Lon Cardon, GlaxoSmithKline's senior vice president of alternative discovery and development. Rather, Glaxo sees this as a practical way to explore the genome in search of technologies and therapies that can make a relatively quick impact on their pipeline.

Cardon also sees this move as the completion of a multi-pronged research initiative at GlaxoSmithKline, which includes a move more than a year ago to join the European Bioinformatics Institute and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute to launch the Center for Therapeutic Target Validation, an industry collaborative concentrating on drug target validation in early-stage drug research. The pharma giant also joined a group of industry leaders on an effort aimed at sequencing the genomes of 100,000 Britons as they mount a new discovery venture related to disease pathways.

GlaxoSmithKline has had success in developing new drugs over the last few years, but its new products haven't offered any radical improvements for patients and struggled to build sales. Its most innovative products for diseases like Duchenne muscular dystrophy, heart disease and cancer, meanwhile, foundered in the clinic. And instead of pushing drug breakthroughs into the market, GSK has been downsizing and reorganizing R&D in the U.S. as analysts speculate that its current weakness makes the company a possible takeover target.

In a way, GlaxoSmithKline's support of Altius can be seen as a return to the drawing board in search of the kind of cutting-edge advances that have remained elusive for the Big Pharma player.

- here's the release