J&J, Roche and others back tech platform to bolster translational drug research

Pharma experts and academics have joined forces to support an existing platform for managing digital translational research data, and their efforts could boost the plodding pace of drug research. The tranSMART Foundation incorporated as a nonprofit last week to organize the open source effort, Roche's ($RHHBY) Michael Braxenthaler, who serves as co-CEO of the foundation, told FierceBiotech IT.

The tranSMART platform consists of a warehouse of molecular, phenotypic and other data types. Software already exists to search and analyze data in the warehouse, giving scientists the ability to, for instance, study correlations between genetic data and information on diseases from clinical trials. The founding members of the foundation include the pharma informatics group the Pistoia Alliance along with the University of Michigan and University College London. 

Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ), which created tranSMART several years ago with Recombinant Data, has begun to use the platform along with fellow drugmakers Sanofi ($SNY) and Pfizer ($PFE), Braxenthaler said. Roche, where Braxenthaler works as part of the informatics team, is also strongly considering adoption of the platform and has already invested in the foundation to organize a community of users.

The foundation and others have considered common standards for different types of data managed with tranSMART, an important step in the effort to gain wide adoption of the platform.

"Potentially, if we were to build a platform like this ourselves, it would take many years and millions of dollars," Bryn Roberts, Roche's global head of informatics in pharma research and early development, told FierceBiotech IT in an interview. "So [tranSMART] gives us an opportunity, if we do choose it ultimately as our translational informatics platform, to much more quickly implement something … that would enable us to take full advantage of the data we generate."

The European Union's Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI) has awarded about 20 million euros to a project called eTRIKS that aims to advance tranSMART into an open system that investigators can tap to make use of IMI-funded studies, many of which endeavor to create new therapies and foster growth in the life sciences.

It's no secret that scientists have amassed incredible amounts of genetic, proteomic, cellular data--but the rate of growth in new therapies has failed to keep up with the increase in such data. Part of the challenge, Braxenthaler says, lies in the fact that so much study information exists in isolated databases, which can take weeks for authorized outsiders to access for their own research. "And this is where things get lost along the way," he adds.

Make no mistake: pharma companies guard their proprietary data fiercely as they build patents around discoveries and products. Yet it could benefit drugmakers to have a common platform for managing translational research data, some of which could consist of non-competitive information.

"It provides an opportunity for a standard platform which is shared amongst many collaborators," Roche's Roberts said, "so it supports collaboration, supports data standards [and] provides an environment for services and extensions to grow up around the platform to keep it alive, relevant and at a controllable and manageable cost."

The tranSMART Foundation's leaders have shared their progress in a series of meetings this week at the Bio-IT World Conference & Expo in Boston. Many software vendors and data providers have shown an interest in the platform, which offers opportunities for tech companies to offer services and new applications.