Swiss drug giant Novartis SA said yesterday it is spending $4 million to fund scientists performing diabetes research at Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Broad Institute, and will make the findings public for other scientists to use.
The effort, Novartis's first major initiative since moving its research arm to Cambridge last year, builds on work underway by some of the same scientists that explores the underlying genetic causes of Type 2, or adult-onset, diabetes. Though the disease affects more than 18 million people, or 6.3 percent of the population, the intricacies of its mechanism and the genetic factors that make a person susceptible are poorly understood.
For Novartis, which has one drug to treat diabetes and is working to expand its franchise in the fast-growing disease, the high-profile research effort is a way of forging close ties with some of its most important new academic neighbors and an attempt to try a new way of collaborating that could become a model for others in the biopharmaceutical industry.
"This is a very progressive step on the part of a private, for-profit biotechnology company," said Sheldon Krimsky, a science policy specialist at Tufts University and a director of the Council for Responsible Genetics, a public interest advocacy group. "It's a recognition that you can still use this research to make profitable products but the knowledge of the genes should be open and available to all users. It's very unusual."
Alan D. Cherrington, president of the American Diabetes Association, said he was unaware of any other industry-sponsored diabetes research effort in which results would be made public.
"Often, when the pharmaceutical industry gets into relationships with academia, they do it in a proprietary way, so they fund the lab and in return they have access to insider information. This seems extraordinary."
Under the three-year agreement, scientists from the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research will work with scientists from Harvard, MIT, and the Broad Institute, a joint venture between the two universities that seeks to create tools and methods for understanding the genetic components of common diseases. The Broad Institute, formed earlier this year, intends to make its discoveries available to all scientists. Scientists at Lund University in Sweden, who have pioneered the role of genetics in diabetes, are also participating.
David Altshuler, director of Broad's program in medical and population genetics and principal investigator of the Novartis effort, said he hopes to sort through the hundreds of genes thought to play a role in Type 2 diabetes to identify those that may be good targets for drugs.
"If you prove that a gene plays a role in the disease, it's much more likely that a drug developed to work on that target will be beneficial to patients," he said.
But Altshuler said the effort was far from assured. Drug makers have tried to apply all sorts of genetic knowledge to drug discovery in an effort to improve the percentage of effective drugs that emerge from research labs.
"It's too early to say whether this kind of genetic validation will improve drug discovery," he said.
In many ways, the diabetes project bears the mark of Dr. Mark Fishman, the former Massachusetts General Hospital geneticist who was chosen to head Novartis research efforts when they moved to Cambridge last year and who claims he wants to reshape the entire drug-discovery process. Making the efforts public will speed research, he said.
"If you hide the data, you have to put up artificial barriers and your scientists have to be more cautious," said Fishman, president of the Novartis Institutes. "I view this as the kind of work that nobody benefits from keeping secret."
Fishman said the diabetes initiative will yield all sorts of intangible benefits to Novartis, such as finding researchers who might later be recruited to Novartis. Moreover, he said, the genomic screening methods used in diabetes research will be applicable to other diseases.
"I hope this will evolve into a more systematic method of finding cures for diseases that can be applied to other therapeutic areas," he said.
Commercially, the open approach adopted by Novartis represents a calculated gamble that it will be better able to capitalize on the identification of specific genes that play a role in Type 2 diabetes. The firm already has a core expertise in diabetes. Collaborating on the research will give its scientists intimate knowledge of the results.
Moreover, identifying which genes play a role in diabetes doesn't give a firm an unobstructed path to a blockbuster drug. The company must still concoct a compound to impact that gene, and then put the drug through years of clinical trials to prove it is safe and effective. Such an effort costs hundreds of millions of dollars, giving a large multinational firm like Novartis many advantages. Based in Basel, Switzerland, Novartis last year posted revenue of nearly $26 billion and net income of about $5 billion, making it one of the 10 largest pharmaceutical companies worldwide.
Jeffrey Krasner can be reached at email@example.com.