Arthur L. Holden is chairman and CEO of First Genetic Trust and chairman of the SNP Consortium.
I am not one to make New Year’s resolutions, but I would suggest all of us in the genomics field pledge to be a bit more patient when it comes to anticipating the fruits of genomics. It’s understandable when a person suffering with a disease is impatient for an effective therapy. It is far less understandable when an experienced investor or an analyst makes statements referring to genomics in the past tense: “Isn’t it amazing how quickly genomics has come and gone.” Here at the dawn of human genomics and molecular medicine, those sorts of sentiments are utter nonsense.
I measure development in the genomics sector using three sequential, overlapping phases. You can easily see how great our progress is by looking at how we’ve done in each of these three stages of development.
I call the first phase infrastructure development. This phase, underway in earnest since the late ’90s, focuses on building applied maps of the genome and technologies for characterizing gene expression, genotyping, and eventually cost-effective sequencing of entire genomes. These essential data and tools are being deployed in countless experiments across academia and industry.
Incidentally, I have been surprised to see greater use and adoption of these technologies by large pharmaceutical companies in 2002 than by so-called cutting edge biotechnology companies. Leading large pharmas are investing in these technologies and infrastructures, while many biotechs are struggling to turn themselves into product companies.
Some biotechs have made significant progress in genomic research. Many have not. Conservation of cash, in light of limited access to very expensive capital, seems to be the principal driver. Scale effects will continue to be important in 2003: Larger, more profitable companies will be able to make more significant investments in this phase than their smaller, less stable counterparts.
Phase two, underway since early 2001, is functional genomics. It focuses on building dynamic networks of well-phenotyped patients to study the role of genetics in disease and drug response. Accurate phenotyping of patients over time may be the most challenging aspect of genomic research. I would argue we made very strong progress on this phase in 2002, too.
In fact, 2002 witnessed a proliferation of patient registries and clinical networks, both in academia and industry. Major academic institutions led the way in developing databanks of well-characterized patients and controls to support ongoing clinical genomic research, and many leading US medical research institutions commenced planning or development of such clinical populations last year. This work will continue through 2003 at places such as Harvard, Johns Hopkins, NUgene, and Marshfield, complemented by the continued development of founder population resources — Iceland, Quebec, Estonia — and pharmacogenetic patient networks by industry.
The third phase is clinical genetics and pharmacogenetics — where the results of the first two phases come together to produce diagnostic and therapeutic products that allow clinicians to more effectively predict clinical events and tailor individual treatment. This is the mecca of genomics. It’s why we love to get up in the morning to work in this field.
Again, I see very strong prospects for progress in this phase. Leading pharmas are making headway with PGx studies, producing the first generation of whole-genome association study data. These studies should lead to greater use of genetic and surrogate markers to guide the more effective use of existing therapeutics over the next few years. Longer term, they will generate new classes of therapeutic agents.
We are making great progress in genomics. Last year was a tremendously productive one, and I predict even greater progress in 2003. May your year be marked by health, happiness, and genomic success!