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GSK, 23andMe to apply personal genetics to drug discovery

New partnership is part of GSK’s R&D face-lift, which includes an increased focus on immune system targets

by Ryan Cross
July 26, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 31


GlaxoSmithKline hopes that a trove of genetic information—along with permission to contact the millions of people it came from—will invigorate its R&D operations. To this end, the British drug giant has formed an exclusive four-year collaboration with the personal genetic-testing company 23andMe.

A photo of Hal Barron.
Credit: GlaxoSmithKline
GSK Chief Scientific Officer Hal Barron speaks at GSK's R&D update event.

“At the core of this approach is science,” GSK’s chief scientific officer, Hal Barron, said in a call with reporters. 23andMe’s genetic data from more than 5 million people could help GSK uncover new drug targets and even expedite clinical trials by easing patient recruitment. More than 80% of 23andMe’s customers have consented to being recontacted for research.

Investors have criticized GSK for its lack of blockbuster drug candidates in recent years. When the firm recruited Barron from his previous post as president of R&D at Calico, Alphabet’s secretive antiaging company, many hoped for a turnaround. Now the firm is restructuring to cut administrative and supply-chain costs, with a goal to save more than $500 million annually by 2021. Those savings will partly fund R&D.

Barron said the immune system will be an increased focus for the company, especially because a single drug target can be relevant for many diseases.

The first joint project for GSK and 23andMe will test the drugmaker’s small-molecule inhibitor of leucine-rich repeat kinase 2 (LRRK2), a protein that is mutated in about 1–2% of people with Parkinson’s disease. 23andMe has already identified more than 250 customers who have the LRRK2 mutation and Parkinson’s, and another 3,000 with the mutation but without Parkinson’s.

This isn’t 23andMe’s first foray into drug discovery. The company has narrower pacts with Genentech and Pfizer. And in 2015, 23andMe established its own therapeutics division, led by ex-Genentech research head Richard Scheller.

Since then, 23andMe has begun projects for autoimmune diseases, cancer immunotherapy, cardiovascular disease, liver disease, osteoarthritis, and more. “We are still a small start-up by many measures, and we thought that it was now the right time to team up with a large global organization,” Scheller said at the press event.

GSK also announced a $300 million investment in 23andMe.


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