Janssen R&D, a division of Johnson & Johnson (J&J), has partnered with the UK Biobank and others according to a recent news release by 3BL Media. It is noteworthy that the UK Biobank holds the largest human genome sequencing project in the world.
Being the largest is only one aspect of Biobank’s unique database. Dr. Guna Rajagopal, head of Discovery Sciences at Janssen R&D explained the difficulty in analyzing data sets.
Dr. Rajagopal said that not all samples are collected the same way. For example, a few samples may be collected meticulously while others may be collected randomly. He referred to UK Biobank’s collection of samples as “best in class.”
The First Step
For starters, last year J&J joined with the UK Government, the Wellcome Trust, three healthcare companies, and a private charity in an effort to sequence the genomes of 500 million people. The subjects, who are participating in the UK Biobank’s genome project, donated blood and allowed access to medical records.
Through technology, the researchers are identifying each component in an individual’s genome makeup (sequencing DNA). Details of DNA sequencing are available here.
Dr. Rajagopal explains that by analyzing DNA researchers are able to identify specific variations of genes that make them susceptible to certain conditions. The analysis can also detect how a patient may react to a specific treatment.
It is truly unprecedented that the UK Biobank can be so large yet contain so many details.
The database includes the participants’ medical histories and lifestyles. Risk factors, such as cholesterol levels and more recently genetic sequence, are being measured using the blood samples that were collected earlier.
Separate analyses were conducted on approximately 100,000 participants by reviewing the MRI images of their abdomen and heart. The data is stored and at a later date it is compared to the participants’ updated health status. The goal is to understand, prevent, or treat various diseases.
About the Timeline
Sequencing has been conducted since last September at UK’s well-known Sanger Institute and the deCODE’s facility in Iceland. According to Dr. Rajagopal they are ahead of schedule. He said that data for the first 125,000 genomes may be ready in mid-2021.
When the data has been compiled, the companies that are participating in the project will be able to access the data exclusively for nine months before it is made available to the public.
It is anticipated that by 2023 data for all Biobank patients (500,000) will be readibly available to the public. The amount of data is expected to exceed 600 billion pages of text.
The Shift in the Development of Drugs
Janssen researchers hope to find genes called drivers somewhere in the mountain of data. A mutated gene raises the risk of diseases such as Alzheimer’s or cancer.
After identifying a mutation, the process of developing the drugs will begin. One such example is Alzheimer’s. Science has yet to understand the progression of the disease and it is therefore unable to develop appropriate medications.
Dr. Mary Black, Head of Population Analytics at Janssen, explains that the use of human genomics in these projects is a shift in approach to the way they develop drugs.
The method currently in use involves screening thousands of compounds after which they follow any and all promising results.
But now the researchers are utilizing genomic data that pinpoints targets to be used to build treatments. Dr. Black refers to a study reporting that if genomic evidence supports a treatment the chances of the treatment getting through clinical trials and FDA approval doubles.
Janssen has been collaborating with the University of Utah since 2017 studying the genomics of juvenile idiopathic arthritis and other diseases. Dr. Rajagopal explained that they are sequencing the University’s samples looking for a variety of genes that may be causing disease to develop in childhood.
The University has a collection of data from eleven million people that it has been accumulating for the past fifty years. It is the largest database of its kind in the U.S.
It is called the Utah Population Database and it provides information supporting research on epidemiology, genetics, public health, and demography.
Dr. Rajagopal emphasizes that these researchers are united in their efforts to use the human genome to unlock lifesaving new therapies. They are hoping that their work will revolutionize medicine in the 21st century.
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