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GSK links with top labs on 'big data' drug project

By Ben Hirschler

LONDON (Reuters) - GlaxoSmithKline is linking with two top bioscience centres on an open-access research project to tap into "big data" generated by gene research, in a move highlighting how drug companies are learning to share.

The new public-private Centre for Therapeutic Target Validation (CTTV) is being created by GSK working alongside the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and the European Bioinformatics Institute, both of which are based in Cambridge, England.

The three founders said on Thursday they hoped to attract interest from other companies and academic institutions over time.

"I fully expect others to join," Patrick Vallance, GSK's head of pharmaceuticals research and development, told Reuters. "But it seemed sensible to get started right away rather than spend two or three years trying to get lots of other people involved."

Rapid advances in genome sequencing have led to almost daily advances in understanding how genetics can affect disease progression, creating a bewildering array of options for developers of new drugs.

As a result, there is a growing trend among pharmaceutical companies to become more open about sharing early-stage - or pre-competitive - research work, rather than keeping their science locked up behind high walls.

Ewan Birney, the interim head of the CTTV, said the pre-competitive nature of the new centre was "critical" to its success.

The hope is that better target validation - which involves defining the role of biological processes in diseases before developing a new medicine - will improve success rates in the high-cost world of drug discovery.

At present, some 90 percent of experimental compounds entering clinical trials fail in those tests, often because the basic biology is poorly understood.

That creates a big incentive for companies to work collaboratively in the early stages of drug research, according to Vallance, who believes there is still plenty of scope for firms to differentiate themselves later on.

"If you can double the base knowledge then you've de-risked things enormously, though you've still got to make your judgment in your invention," he said. "It is not going to give you all the answers but it is going to increase the chance of getting it right."

Other pre-competitive collaborative ventures include the Innovative Medicines Initiative, a European Union-backed project to speed drug development, and the Structural Genomics Consortium, which works on protein structures.

The CTTV project aims to address a wide range of human diseases and will seek to publish important findings in scientific journals, as well as routinely sharing gene sequence data and information with the wider scientific community.

The venture will be supported by around 50 researchers drawn from the three founding organizations and will be based on the Wellcome Trust campus in Cambridge.

GSK is making a "multi-million pound" contribution to fund initial projects. The company declined to be more specific on how much money it was putting in.

(Editing by Anthony Barker)

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