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Putting their brains together
CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—Two heads are better than one, a fact that Gene Network Sciences Inc. (GNS) is counting on as it enters into a research collaboration with the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center to tackle glioblastoma, the most common and deadly form of brain cancer.
The team-up, the financial terms of which were not disclosed, is aimed at the rapid translation of DNA sequence and clinical data from patients with glioblastoma into breakthrough discoveries leading to drugs and diagnostics.
Their analyses are expected to generate models that enable the discovery of key genes, proteins and other molecular entities that together causally drive glioblastoma disease progression, disease recurrence and survival. The results from these projects will include the identification of new combination drug targets for disease and the development of diagnostics to determine appropriate individual patient treatments.
According to the companies, this collaboration "will leverage the combination of groundbreaking genetic data and clinical oncology expertise from M.D. Anderson with supercomputers and advanced machine-learning software from GNS."
M.D. Anderson is among the leaders—if not the leader—in terms of clinical research in oncology, and it has a huge volume of work with pharmaceutical companies in clinical trials, notes Thomas A. Neyarapally, senior vice president of corporate development at GNS.
"Their experience is just about unmatched anywhere," he says. "Also, they don't just have isolated research work, but also work in applied translational science in drug discovery. On our end, for this type of data—which has only really become affordable to generate over the past few years—we can take the genetics data, such as SNP data, as well as the biological process data and gene expression data, and tie them together with clinical outcomes into a coherent model of the system that can be accurately simulated."
GNS was introduced formally to M.D. Anderson through an advisor in the pharma world, and Neyarapally says he and his colleagues "were just blown away by how organized they were and how well they received us. We got opportunities to talk in-depth about technologies and then break up to talk one-to-one with various investigators and researchers."
In these discussions, glioblastoma emerged quickly as the most ripe candidate and the therapeutic area that the two institutions should move forward with first, particularly because of the richness of M.D. Anderson's data set for glioblastoma, which includes genetic, genomic and clinical endpoint data that will be analyzed using GNS' supercomputer-driven Reverse Engineering and Forward Simulation (REFS) software platform.
"The data set we're starting with is pre-existing data from 200 patients, that forms part of the data generated through the National Cancer Institute's Cancer Genome Atlas project," Neyarapally says.
Other ideas for potential collaboration came out of the initial meeting, many of them quite good, he says, but they involved the need for more data collection, "whereas we had an essentially complete data for glioblastoma. In addition, we hit it off particularly well with Ken (Aldape) at M.D. Anderson. We also have a relationship with another university that will allow us to take the research into some specialized animal models for validation work."
"There continues to be an urgent need for a more efficient translation of research into improved treatments for glioblastoma patients," says Dr. Kenneth Aldape, who led the M.D. Anderson glioblastoma research team that produced the data set. "With its computational expertise and commercially tested REFS platform, GNS is well positioned to work with us to achieve the desired acceleration in the development of sorely needed effective treatments and diagnostics for this deadly disease."
"GNS is excited to be working with one of the world's foremost research and clinical care institutions to rapidly translate lab bench research into bedside results," says Colin Hill, CEO of GNS. "Our collaborative work with M.D. Anderson is one of the first examples of applying next-generation machine-learning software and supercomputers to begin to realize the promise of personalized medicine."
Although "deeply devoted" to the glioblastoma issue, GNS is also looking eventually to other projects, cancer and otherwise, with M.D. Anderson and other organizations.
"For example, in addition to several cancer collaborations with groups such as Weill Cornell Medical College and UC San Diego, we're in discussions regarding building similar holistic models from a clinical group with a very rich data set related to inflammatory diseases such as arthritis," Neyarapally notes. "And we've done work in the past with Jackson Laboratories in the area of metabolic diseases."