To explain why multiple sclerosis progresses differently in individual patients through new tools, technologies and identification of underlying genetic causes, Biogen Idec has turned to both Google and Columbia University’s Institute for Genomic Medicine for answers.
Google X labs, which includes the internet giant’s life science division and its technology and data analytics capabilities, has teamed up with Biogen Idec’s expertise in the neurological disease to find more precise ways to better understand how it affects individuals over time. Two patients with similar symptoms who are diagnosed with MS at the same time can experience such different disease progression that years later one can play tennis while the other is confined to a wheelchair, Biogen Idec said.
Google will explore the drivers of MS disease progression through technologies and methods such as novel sensor platforms, advanced laboratory science and bio-analytical tools, according to Biogen Idec.
“The collaboration with us is still developing, and we’ll have more details about the work we are doing with Google in the coming months,” said Kate Niazi-Sai, a Biogen Idec spokesperson. “Our overarching goal is to better understand how multiple sclerosis impacts patients. The Columbia agreement is more basic science that combines their genomics expertise with our drug-development capabilities.”
Biogen Idec, which has developed five MS drugs including Tecfidera, an oral medication approved in 2013, is on a mission to use new technologies to gather round-the-clock data on patients. The company has run studies to see if fitness bands such as Fitbit can be valid data gathering tools. It also is developing, with the Cleveland Clinic, an iPad app to help physicians better evaluate their patients’ diseases progression.
By examining genetic and environmental factors, Google will allow researchers to “collect and sift through data from multiple sclerosis patients using sensors, software and data analysis tools in order to understand the different progress mechanics of the disease with different patients,” Rick Ruddick, Biogen’s vice president of development sciences, said in a statement.
The multi-year project will require Google X labs to develop a data collection platform that enables Biogen Idec to start collecting massive amounts of data on MS patients as their conditions progress. Patients can experience tingling, problems with walking, impaired muscle movement, speech difficulties and degraded vision. “
Our central thesis is to change healthcare from being reactive to proactive,” said Andrew Conrad, head of Google X labs, which has 150 scientists working on several major projects, according to Bloomberg News. “We’re trying to understand the disease at its onset and see if we can intervene early.”
An estimated 2.3 million people suffer from MS, the most common neurological disease, which affects people between ages 20 and 40 and is two to three times more common in women than in men. The worldwide total includes 400,000 cases in the U.S., with about 10,000 new cases diagnosed each year, according to multiplesclerosis.net. The highest concentration of MS patients is in North America, Europe and Australia.
Columbia University’s Institute of Genomic Medicine is taking a more basic science approach, using genetics discovery research to identify qualified targets for a broad range of neurodegenerative diseases, including amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), MS and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. The Institute and Biogen Idec have formed a $30 million strategic alliance that includes a sequencing and analysis facility and a post-doctoral program to be established at Columbia to support collaborative genetics studies.
“Our understanding of human genetics is rapidly expanding, and there is growing recognition that the education of the genetic causes of disease will have a transformative effect on both patient care and drug development in many different areas,” the Institute’s founding director David Goldstein, Ph.D., said in a statement.
The collaboration, he said, would combine Biogen Idec’s drug development capabilities with Columbia’s cutting-edge genomics expertise, and “will not only focus on target identification and validation at the early stages of drug development, but also facilitate genetically informed evaluation of treatments.”
Biogen Idec said the partnership will investigate the genomes of patients showing unusual treatment responses or unique disease presentations to explore the connections among genes, pathways and disease processes. The ultimate goal, the company said, will be to provide multiple qualified targets for new therapeutic approaches, increasing the potential for the development of new treatments.
Tom Maniatis, Ph.D., chair of the department of biochemistry and molecular biophysics at Columbia University Medical Center and director of Columbia’s university-wide precision medicine initiative, said in a statement, “We expect that the [Columbia/Biogen] alliance will dramatically advance our understanding of the genetics of these devastating diseases and ultimately lead to mechanism-based treatments, a key aspect of Columbia’s precision-medicine initiative.”
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