Q&A: Translation deCODEd
As far as buzz words go in the life science community, "translational research" has had a pretty long lifespan. Transforming laboratory-hatched ideas into lucrative commercial products has, is, and will be a holy grail sought by scientists and business types alike. But successes in the field of translational research are few and far between. One of the most notable burnouts befell Icelandic genetics company deCODE, which assembled an impressive genomic database, and identified several key diseas
As far as buzz words go in the life science community, "translational research" has had a pretty long lifespan. Transforming laboratory-hatched ideas into lucrative commercial products has, is, and will be a holy grail sought by scientists and business types alike. But successes in the field of translational research are few and far between. One of the most notable burnouts befell Icelandic genetics company deCODE, which assembled an impressive genomic database, and identified several key disease-causing genes, before investors got antsy and left the company bankrupt before it could reach its lofty goal of turning that genomic data into therapies or diagnostics.
|Sir Richard Sykes|
Image courtesy of Lonza Ltd.
Cambridge Research Institute cancer researcher Ian Mills, and chair of the UK's National Health Service London, Sir Richard Sykes, dissect the failings of deCODE and discuss the future of translational research in an editorial published in this week's Science Translational Medicine. The Scientist spoke with Sykes, a biochemist by training who's career has straddled the translational divide as former chairman of GlaxoSmithKline, president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and Rector of Imperial College, to get his views on the arc of the translational game.
: What do you think was deCODE's fatal flaw?
: I'm not sure there is a fatal flaw. I guess at the beginning, maybe they thought that there was some kind of linearity; that they could go from a gene to a gene product to a diagnostic or a treatment. Of course it didn't turn out to be as simple as that. And that's the problem.
Now what deCODE was doing was fine. They were looking at a very specific population thinking that they would be able to home in on these genes that were very disease-specific. Fine. You can do that, and you can get a lot of data. But it doesn't lead you automatically to a diagnostic or a treatment.
: Do you think that the na?vet? that was illustrated by deCODE is in some way necessary if we're to arrive at the point where we can develop treatments based on knowledge of a single gene?
: It's a learning process, isn't it? Everybody can be clever after the fact, but at the time, they thought that we'd move very quickly. It wasn't just deCODE that thought that. Of course the investors obviously thought it. They thought they were sort of into a new goldmine.
And now all the investors have pulled out of that area. They're not into that stuff. They've just been burnt so much by life scientists not recognizing that these projects are 15, 20 year investments, not 1 to 3 year investments.
: How can genomics researchers either shorten the timeframe from research to therapy or convince investors and the public that it's still a worthwhile investment, even though it takes more than 3 years?
: I don't think it's up to the researchers to do that. I think the researchers get their money from grant giving body like NIH, Gates, Wellcome, and all the national and international foundations that give money to do fundamental basic research. That's fine. And if business wants to get involved, but I suspect they won't at that early stage because the researches can be paid and they've always been paid in the past.
But, when you come to a point where you've actually identified something, then somebody should get interested in it. So there's a transition period when you're working alongside a partner -- and that should presumably be a corporate partner -- who has taken an interest in that area.
: Who do you think should initiate translational research projects? Do you think that it should come from industry, or do you think there's more intellectual momentum in the academies?
: I think it's a mixture. I don't think it's one or the other. I think the bodies that are funding research will see the importance of translational medicine. It's true today in stem cell research. Getting stem cells into the clinic is usually funded by grants coming from charities or public funding, not from industry. And I think you've got to see that in the context of [genomics translational research] as well.
: What are the key steps to avoiding another deCODE situation?
: You can't avoid other deCODEs, because that is the whole basis of evolution. You've got to keep going forward. Some will fail, some will succeed. What you've got to be careful of is not to extend yourself. I suspect that maybe deCODE did get into a situation where its burn rate was extremely high. Those are the issues. But that doesn't stop, at the end of the day, a project going nowhere. There's no guarantee that any of this stuff will ever work.
In a sense, the more information you have, the better decision-maker you are. In the past, drugs were discovered by serendipity, and then afterwards we found out how they worked. If you can crack the understanding of the basic mechanisms of disease by understanding the genetics, the environmental factors, and the lifestyle factors, then obviously you're working on fact and not fiction. And when you're spending one billion pounds, you want to be working on fact if you can. The trouble is there's no linearity to it because genes don't work in isolation. They work in a whole system. And that is what we've got to come to terms with. We can generate enormous amounts of data. The issue is, how do we get the right data to drive us in the right direction?
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:Monetize your Science;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/57117/
[February 2010]*linkurl:deCODE files for bankruptcy;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/56152/
[17 November 2009]*linkurl:Team of Rivals;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/56103/