Big pharma companies team up to increase diversity in genome data

By Jonathan Smith

- Last updated on GMT

© Getty Images
© Getty Images

Related tags Genome genome editing Drug development

The pharma giants AbbVie, Amgen, AstraZeneca, Bayer and Merck have been revealed as founding members of the Alliance for Genomic Discovery (AGD), a project aiming to accelerate drug development by collecting genomic data from underrepresented populations.

The AGD was launched in 2022 by the sequencing heavyweight Illumina and Nashville Biosciences, a subsidiary of Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) in the U.S. The aim is to expand the diversity of genomic data collections in the industry and harness it to accelerate the development of new therapies.

There is a large genomic gap​ in the biotech and pharma industry where the majority of genomes sequenced so far belong to people of European ancestry. This can miss potential disease targets and create obstacles when tailoring treatments to people from different ancestries.

To address this gap, the founding pharma members of the AGD will pitch in to fund the whole-genome sequencing of more than 250,000 samples in a biobank run by VUMC.

Illumina and Nashville teamed up with Amgen in January 2023 to have Amgen’s subsidiary deCODE genetics collect genetic data from the first 35,000 samples from the VUMC, which are mostly from African ancestry. With today’s announcement, deCODE will now sequence the remaining samples in the collection.

The AGD will deploy Illumina’s next-generation sequencing and bioinformatics platforms to annotate and interpret the genomics data. The group will share the datasets on a cloud service hosted by Illumina or other trusted platforms and will use additional clinical data in VUMC’s trove to then unpick disease mechanisms and discover novel drug targets.

In a public release​, Joydeep Goswami, chief financial officer and chief strategy and corporate development officer of Illumina, welcomed the new partners into the AGD.

"Together, we aim to advance genomics and multiomics-based methods for finding therapeutic targets that are more actionable in the treatment and curing of diseases, while also improving the speed, probability of success, and efficiency of the discovery and development process," he stated.

According to the VUMC’s website​, it will take until around March 2025 to sequence all samples in the AGD project and the group plans to enlist a total of eight participating companies.

It adds that AGD participants will pay the full cost of sequencing and accessing the DNA samples in the VUMC collection and any proceeds after the costs will be invested further into the biobank. It also mentions that the sequencing data will become available to VUMC researchers in addition to the participant companies.

There are many industry consortia with the mission to sequence samples from biobanks worldwide, with established examples including the FinnGen consortium, Our Future Health and several projects with the UK Biobank. There are also projects specifically aimed at reaching underserved populations, including the Nigerian 100k Genome Project, the Human Pangenome Reference Consortium (HPRC) and the GenomeAsia 100K Project.

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