October 18, 1997

Companies Step Up Efforts to Sample Remote Populations

Alliances and Financial Stakes Grow in Human DNA Prospecting

According to an article in the October 24th edition of Science magazine, In a new gold rush, genetics researchers are scouring odd corners of the world for families whose DNA is likely to carry interesting genes. They won't be freely sharing what they find, because their backing comes from companies like Sequana Therapeutics Inc. of La Jolla, California; Millennium Pharmaceuticals Inc. of Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Genset S.A. of Paris."

The reason why they won't share: The companies are looking to patent and profit from the DNA of remote populations. Just over a week after the Science report, on November 3, Arris Pharmaceuticals of California announced it would pay US $166 million in stock to take over Sequana, one of the highest profile human DNA prospecting companies. The merged company resulting from the Arris takeover will be called Axys Pharmaceuticals.1

RAFI Communique readers will already be familiar with gene-prospecting and patent-producing companies seeking DNA from remote populations, especially Axys' predecessor Sequana (see RAFI Communique May/June 1995 and Sep/Oct 1995). By finding and patenting "disease genes", the companies hope to profit through the sale of diagnostic tests and therapies based on proprietary human genes. Crucial in their strategy are alliances with other, larger life industry companies with the money and muscle to fund research and market the gene-based products. Millennium has agreements with Eli Lilly (US), Hoffman-LaRoche (Switzerland), and Astra (Sweden). Genset has deals with Johnson & Johnson (US), and Sythelabo (France).

Axys, which is currently hunting for asthma, diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis, schizophrenia, and manic depression genes,2 has alliances that read like a Who's Who of the life industry. They include Boehringer Ingelheim (Germany), GlaxoWellcome (UK), Novartis (Switzerland), Merck (US), Bayer (Germany), Pharmacia & Upjohn (Sweden), Amgen (US), Abbott (US), Warner-Lambert (US), SmithKline Beecham (US), and Hoffman-Roche (Switzerland).

DNA prospecting companies rely heavily on academic researchers to obtain access to samples. For example, Genset has signed an agreement for exclusive rights to commercialize DNA collected and banked by the Technion Bruce Rappaport Faculty of Medicine at a facility in Haifa (Israel)3 and an agreement with the Chinese Academy of Sciences to conduct a large human genetics study in China.4

There are signs that the DNA prospectors are beginning to compete with one another for access to human genetic resources. Axys, apparently not to be outdone by Genset, has stepped up efforts at its' own company conducting genetic research in China, called GeneCore, which it jointly-owns with Perkin-Elmer Corporation and a California venture capital firm.5

Particularly fruitful for Axys has been its relationship with NoÎ Zamel and Arthur Slutsky, researchers at the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute of Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto. In May, the company gleefully announced some of the first public results of the collaboration with the Canadian academics: "In only two and one-half years, researchers at Sequana were able to isolate the [asthma] gene, the most common susceptibility gene ever discovered, using advanced DNA analysis technologies combined with data and samples provided by the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute of Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto."6 As reported in RAFI Communique May/June 1995, Lunenfeld had provided Sequana with samples it collected from the inhabitants of Tristan da Cunha, a remote island in the South Atlantic with a population just over 300. Over half of the island's population may have asthma.7

According to Science, the Axys/Lunenfeld collaboration is now kicking into high gear. Reportedly they aim to make many more collections from remote and disease-prone populations. In addition to a recent second visit to Tristan da Cunha, targets for collection include:

  • "a small traditional Jewish community [now living in Israel] that settled in southern India more than 2000 years ago"
  • the approximately 1,000 inhabitant of Easter Island, Chile who are of Polynesian descent (in collaboration with the University of Santiago).
  • "an extended family of 170 in the Brazilian highlands outside Rio de Janeiro"
  • "a family of 120 in a small village in China"

Have ethical problems with academics collecting DNA for industry? According to Lunenfeld, since public funds weren't available, turning to industry was the right thing to do. Slutsky told Science that "It was clear that we didn't have the resources to do [big-scale] genetics... Collaboration with Sequana made all the sense in the world." Indeed. Lunenfeld stands to get a significant piece of the US $70 million Axys is investing in its asthma gene work.

  1. "Arris and Sequana Merge to Form New Company, Axys Pharmaceuticals; Deal Valued at $166 Million" BusinessWire, 3 November 1997.
  2. "Sequana Therapeutics Signs $103 Million Drug Discovery and Technology Alliance with Parke-Davis", BusinessWire 3 November 1997.
  3. "Genset and Technion Israel Institute of Technology Collaborate on DNA Bank for Common Diseases", Genset press release, 9 June 1997. See also Pharmaceutical Business News, 4 June 1997.
  4. "Genset and the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences to enter joint venture for Genomics Research" Genset press release, 4 November 1996.
  5. Sequana press release 28 October 1997.
  6. Sequana press release, 21 May 1997.
  7. Zamel, NoÎ. "In search of the genes of asthma on the island of Tristan da Cunha" in Can Respir J 1995;2(1):18-22.
  8. "Gene Prospecting in Remote Populations" in Science, 24 October 1997, p. 565.
  9. Science, 24 October 1997, p. 565."

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