Rivals Help Fund Regeneron's Gene-Sequencing Effort

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Some of the world's largest pharmaceutical companies are pooling resources to fund an ambitious genetic and medical database aimed at bolstering the search for new drugs.

AbbVie Inc., Alnylam Pharmaceuticals Inc., AstraZeneca PLC, Biogen Inc. and Pfizer Inc. will pay $10 million each to Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc., which began the project last year in partnership with the U.K. Biobank, a nonprofit that has collected DNA samples and health records from half a million people in the U.K., and drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline PLC.

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The new funding will help Regeneron complete the database by the end of next year, the companies said Monday. In exchange, the five companies will have exclusive access to the data for six to 12 months before it is made public for all researchers to use, a Regeneron spokeswoman said.

Regeneron, based in Tarrytown, N.Y., is responsible for sequencing the genes of all 500,000 people, and originally planned to have the work completed by 2022.

"This is an incredible treasure trove, and that's why this deserved to go out there to other companies and the public so that everybody can take advantage of it," Dr. Yancopoulos said. "This is going to be a great contribution to all mankind, that all of us will be using for years to come."

When the project was first announced last year, the U.K. Biobank said it expected the cost of sequencing genes for all 500,000 patients to be about $150 million.

GlaxoSmithKline declined to participate in the second phase of the research project, Regeneron said. A GlaxoSmithKline spokeswoman said the company is instead pursuing a project to sequence the genomes, or entire set of DNA, for the 500,000 patients in the U.K. Biobank. Glaxo said in December that it would invest GBP40 million ($54.3 million) in the project and other research initiatives, but hasn't said when it expects to complete it.

The Regeneron-led project will sequence each person's exome -- the 1% to 2% of a person's genes where the majority of known genetic mutations reside.

A Regeneron spokeswoman said it would release the data to the public in batches of 50,000 to 100,000 samples beginning as early as this year, and make the entirety of the data public by 2020.

"Modern drug discovery and development must include human genetic data, and there's no current richer resource than that provided through this effort," John Maraganore, chief executive of Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, said in a written statement. The data "will greatly enhance Alnylam's target identification and validation efforts."

Government-funded academics and researchers perform most research into the genetic causes of disease. In 2015, the National Institutes of Health announced a project called the Precision Medicine Initiative, which aimed to recruit one million volunteers in the U.S. to provide their health records and some genetic data by the end of 2019. Thus far, the project has enrolled more than 14,000 participants, according to the NIH.

Regeneron began doing large-scale genetic sequencing in 2014, and last year sequenced the genes of more than 250,000 people, the company says. The company employs 50 to 100 people who work on its sequencing projects, most of whom work on analytics and computational analysis of the data. The company has largely robotized and automated the work of preparing samples for testing, Dr. Yancopoulos said.

Write to Joseph Walker at joseph.walker@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 08, 2018 07:14 ET (12:14 GMT)