Three academic institutions and four international pharmaceutical companies have started a wide international genetic research project to develop new medicines and diagnostics. The research utilizes Finnish biobank collections.
The Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland (FIMM) at the University of Helsinki, the Finnish National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL), and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard – together with pharmaceutical companies Biogen, Eisai, MSD and Pfizer – are developing a collaboration model for biobanks and pharmaceutical companies. The genetic information contained in biobank samples could help companies recognize promising new medicines early on. This could result in cheaper and more efficient treatment.
“Pharmaceutical development has become extremely expensive and new medicines reach the market very slowly. Animal testing is not sufficient when it comes to understanding side effects. All too often medicines that are already far in the costly development project have to be pulled back, because larger human testing reveals serious side effects. In order to come up with new medicines, we need to change the development process,” says Professor Aarno Palotie who works for FIMM, the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
Genetic information could help find a solution. Certain individuals have naturally inactive genes that cause them no harm but can instead protect them from certain diseases. Professor Palotie and his colleagues are now looking into the possibility of turning off these kinds of genes in other individuals, which could protect them from specific illnesses that have a genetic background. Medicines based on genetic information could provide safe treatment for various diseases, with fewer side effects than traditionally developed medicines.
The collaboration pilot started in June 2015, and will last for one year. According to Professor Palotie, the work will continue after that in some form.
“This project represents a new type of public-private cooperation, so-called precompetitive collaboration. It is very useful in projects for which no pharmaceutical company alone has sufficient resources. It precedes patents and intellectual property rights.”
Global research, Finnish strengths
The research collaboration relies on genetic data from Finnish biobanks. In practice, the participating pharmaceutical companies express their preliminary interest in certain genes. The researchers at Broad Institute map the general variation in these genes and tell the Finnish partners, which variations look promising. The variations are then checked against Finnish genetic samples. The researchers and pharmaceutical companies have no access to the personal data of Finnish sample donors.
“Finnish biobanks can offer unique genetic information for this type of research. Finns have a very homogenous genetic structure due to living thousands of years in geographical isolation. This information can help identify genetic variations behind certain diseases,” says Professor Palotie.
As research tends to become more and more international and expertise is scattered around the globe, this cooperation banks on some other Finnish strengths as well.
“The Finnish healthcare system has a long tradition of epidemiological research, and we have extensive sample collections in our biobanks. Furthermore, we have comprehensive registers covering the nation’s health data – every birth and death, every treated disease and prescribed medicine. This is the best that Finland can offer to medical research.”