Medical Research Council and GSK to identify new therapeutic targets from genetic association studies

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The Medical Research Council (MRC) and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) have announced the creation of a jointly funded programme seeking to identify and validate genes associated with common human diseases. A key aim of the programme will be to translate these observations into new drug targets and biomarkers of disease.

The MRC and GSK will each invest £1 million in the programme over the next three years, which will pilot a new way of collaborative working between the two organisations. It will bring together academic and industrial expertise and resources in areas of mutual interest through joint funding and sharing from large databases and sample collections held by the partners. The collaboration will speed the translation of genetic insights into new concepts for therapy and other benefits for patients.

Projects funded through the programme will bring together MRC and GSK resources to study the role of genes in common human diseases through genetic association studies. This approach of combining data sets is increasingly recognised as necessary in order to increase the statistical robustness of studies and to enable the definitive identification of genes at the root of a disease. As part of the collaboration, GSK will make extensive data acquired from large disease-related and population-based genetic studies available. The GSK collections have considerable potential to better link genetic traits to detailed variations in phenotypes.

Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council, said: “This type of project is a testament to the collaborative working relationship which exists between public and private research in the UK and allows both to thrive. By making the most of existing investments, the MRC can support the very best research into the patterns and causes of disease. Collaborating to produce larger cohorts and hence more statistically significant results, will allow us to identify genetic and other contributors to disease more quickly and maximise benefits for future patients.

Dr Patrick Vallance, Senior Vice President, Drug Discovery, GaxoSmithKline, said: “The genetics of human diseases has come of age and GSK wants to make the most of current knowledge and research to significantly impact treatment options. We have worked hard to collect and refine our data but we now need to take a bold step forwards and work with others to uncover the new disease targets and genetic variations that are useful to inform drug discovery and development. GSK is looking forward to pioneering this novel and exciting working partnership with the MRC which we believe models openness and collaboration. We hope other industry groups will see the power of pooling knowledge in this way and consider how they too can work productively with academic partners. Lon Cardon is GSK's new head of Genetics who will lead for GSK on this collaboration.”

The programme will be managed by a joint MRC-GSK Steering Group, which will oversee the funding and progress of projects. To mark the creation of this partnership two major awards are being announced.

The first will support research on depression where the genetic basis is complicated and the underlying mechanisms not well understood. This study aims to identify genes involved in susceptibility to depression by combining very large samples of thousands of white European subjects with well identified depression.

“An important genetic contribution to depression is well established and understanding the molecular basis of this will provide vital clues to tailoring existing treatment to individual needs and discovering novel targets for new safer, more effective medications,” said Professor Peter McGuffin who will lead the research at the MRC Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre based at the Institute of Psychiatry, London.

The second project is focused on using large population-based cohorts to identify new genetic variants associated with obesity and related metabolic disorders and to more precisely localise the causal variant underlying the genetic signal.

“Being able to bring together carefully characterised cohorts, such as EPIC-Norfolk and the Lausanne cohort, will allow us to make the most of the latest genomic technology and help us identify key genetic risk factors for common metabolic disorders,” said Professor Nick Wareham who will lead the investigation at the MRC Epidemiology Unit in Cambridge.

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