23andMe and GSK Head to Clinical Trials With Cancer Drug

U.K. drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline Plc and genetic-testing giant 23andMe Inc. have begun their first joint human clinical trial as part of a collaboration to leverage the Silicon Valley firm’s DNA database to develop drugs.

The companies said that they enrolled their first patient this month in early-stage trials for a drug that targets human tumors. The drug is an antibody that works to block CD96, a protein that plays a role in modulating the body’s immune responses. The theory is that blocking it will help control the activity of another molecule in the body called CD155 that is often over-expressed in malignant human tumors.

GSK took a $300 million stake in 23andMe in 2018 in a deal to share its data and collaborate on drug development. The idea was to comb DNA data and health information volunteered by 23andMe’s more than 12 million customers to hunt for clues as to the role genetics play in different diseases and then translate those insights into potential new drugs.

“This is a new way of thinking about drug development,” Hal Barron, GSK’s chief scientific officer and president of research and development, said in an interview. “And the concept is coming to bear.”

There is much enthusiasm in the pharmaceutical world for the pathway that these companies are targeting. Prior to teaming up, both had their own programs to explore CD96. 23ndMe tapped into its database to validate GSK’s approach, using an algorithm that compared potential drug targets to a data set that included genetic information along with other health data shared by customers in order to identify genetic patterns.

“It’s an important target,” Barron said. “Hopefully we’ll find out in the clinic that it helps patients fight cancer, and maybe even aids the immune system in eradicating it. That would be the ideal situation.”

The two companies have nearly 30 programs underway exploring potential drug targets in oncology, immunology, neurology, cardiovascular and metabolic disease. The vast majority are still in the early stages of validating those molecular pathways; for a few, drug discovery efforts are already underway.

“What has surprised me the most is how well this approach has worked, how productive it’s been,” said 23andMe Chief Executive Officer Anne Wojcicki.

Identifying a molecular pathway that plays a role in a disease is only part of the hurdle in developing a drug. Even once it’s clear that a target is involved in a disease, altering it could have other negative health impacts or simply be difficult to design a drug due to the intricacies of human biology.

While it’s unlikely all those will make it to clinical trials, Barron said that using genetics to find potential drug targets will hopefully lead to a “higher probability” those ultimately result in effective medicines.

23andMe launched its therapeutics program five years ago, and it’s become an increasingly large focus of the company. In January, it licensed an antibody it had developed to treat inflammatory diseases to Spanish drugmaker Almirall SA. The company is individually pursuing other drug candidates, some of which it may put through clinical trials itself rather than licensing out to other companies.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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