Biopharma companies jump into big data stampede for genetic triggers of disease

Since Regeneron ($REGN) signed on with Geisinger Health System early last year, the biotech has amassed sequencing data on dozens of promising genetic targets for a slate of ailments, including some common ones like high cholesterol. One new discovery could lay the foundation for a new drug to treat a cause severe of obesity in children, the company tells Reuters.

And that's just one of a number of similar data quests by biopharma, the wire service reports, singling out industry leaders like Pfizer ($PFE), Roche ($RHHBY) and Biogen ($BIIB) for pursuing big genomic sequencing projects of their own.

The hunt for genetic mutations has already triggered successful high-profile drug research programs in cancer, helping establish a foundation for this field in R&D. But it busted the banks on oncology some time ago, going on to include a targeted disease approach for the likes of Vertex ($VRTX), which just yesterday took another big step forward in its quest to expand the market reach of Kalydeco into a larger genetically defined group of cystic fibrosis patients.

All of a sudden, it all opened up," Scripps genomics expert Eric Topol told Reuters. "It's starting to really become a new preferred model for drug development."

This big trend in drug R&D was made possible by the free-fall in the cost of sequencing. In a span of 12 years, dating back to the first pioneering sequencing project, the expense for whole genome sequencing has plunged from $3 billion to $1,500 as sequencing companies continue to break the $1,000 threshold. Sequencing exomes can cost less than half that. The drop in cost has opened up industrial-sized sequencing projects, in which hundreds of thousands of people can undergo partial sequencing to uncover data that points to new drug targets.

Amgen ($AMGN), meanwhile, acquired Decode Genetics so it would have the tools available to do its own work, while 23andMe has been setting up deals with biopharma companies to do more drug discovery projects as it sets up its own R&D arm.

"All of the companies are feeling like, 'Oh my gosh. We have to do something substantial in genomics--yesterday,'" David Goldstein, who runs Columbia's Institute for Genomic Medicine, tells Reuters.

- here's the report from Reuters