“As sequencing technology shrinks to the size of a key ring and emerging technologies make it possible to track changes to the genome at single cell level, then all of a sudden genomics data becomes a streaming and wearable dataset,” says Imad I. Yassin, Vice President of bio data management company Genestack. He is explaining why an ecosystem approach is needed for drug discovery and how the company will support members of the Milner Therapeutics Institute in delivering this.
“Real world evidence from patients is beginning to come into play. In an era of precision medicine these huge longitudinal clinical datasets will be a rich source of knowledge for drug development,” Yassin continues. “Data production is cheap and processing power readily available; the big challenge is now to create tools to manage, search, aggregate and analyze these data sets.”
Yassin sees increasingly that data needs to be managed across organizational boundaries and between the academic and industry communities, an area where the company has particular strengths. Genestack has worked closely with leading pharma companies and academic communities to create an automated, robust, scalable bio-data platform and tools that allow discovery scientists to find relevant datasets and to collaborate.
“Our customers are big pharma and they are saying ‘you’ve sorted genomics data, what about proteomics emerging from academia? Clinical data? Imaging data? The microbiome? The cost and complexity is opening the door for more cooperation and that is why the approach taken by the Milner Therapeutics Institute to create an ecosystem for pre-competitive drug discovery is so exciting,” he says.
Professor Tony Kouzarides is the founding Director of the Milner Therapeutics Institute, which aims to increase collaborative research between academia and industry to convert ground breaking science into therapies and allow the fast track of innovation from bench to bedside. Kouzarides explains that the Institute will be a “pipeline for drug discovery within an academic setting,” making it easier for academic researchers to work with pharmaceutical companies.
The Milner Institute has evolved from a research agreement signed in June 2015 between the University of Cambridge, the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and the Babraham Institute with three pharmaceutical companies: AstraZeneca, Astex and GSK. Since then the number of affiliates has increased to 66 and includes Pfizer, Shionogi, Elysium Health and Johnson and Johnson Innovation.
The academic community has access to cell lines and disease models that can be used to screen drugs for efficacy. This would enable drugs approved for use in certain diseases to be tested for use in other diseases – a practice called repositioning or repurposing.
“An academic might have developed a brain disease model using an organoid – a mini organ in a Petri dish,” explains Kouzarides. “We can use this to test drugs that have been licensed for use in other diseases such as arthritis or cancer.”
The approach can also be used for novel therapeutic agents to determine at an early stage if any in the pharmaceutical company’s portfolio are worth progressing along the drug development pipeline. This will reduce the cost of early drug discovery.
However, to use this knowledge effectively biologists in both research and academia need easy-to-use tools to track, manage, find, aggregate and analyze this data, so that the sum is greater than the parts. This is where Genestack comes in.
For example, cell lines can also be used for toxicity trials another major cost in drug development. Genomics provide a good proxy for measuring the impact of an active ingredient on the whole organism. By exposing cells to a chemical, you can measure gene expression and use this as a marker for dose response. With Genestack’s technology it is possible to run this type of analysis using a library of compounds with similar chemical structures.
Yassin says: “In drug development there are a vast number of biologists and chemists doing the research and they are customers for a very small number of bioinformaticians.
“Our aim is to build new tools and make them available so that discovery scientists don’t need the support of an expert for every problem.
“By participating within the Milner Therapeutics Institute, we have access to a vibrant ecosystem of people all pushing the edge of what is possible. We are looking forward to working more closely with them to accelerate development of the tools they need.”