If anyone within a big pharmaceutical company were given $10 million to integrate all the company’s various research data, he wouldn’t know where to start, says Robert McBurney, CSO of Beyond Genomics. By and large, McBurney says, pharmaceutical companies want to do systems biology, but they don’t know how.
Two of Beyond Genomics’ clients, GlaxoSmithKline and Novartis, might some day be exceptions. “[They] have bought into this, they have managed to secure the funding necessary to make this happen, and they’ve managed to secure sufficient visibility within the company to have some muscle to make it happen,” the CSO says.
McBurney, whose career spanned academia, government, and a stint with a drug development company before he took his post at the now three-year-old Cambridge, Mass., firm, calls drug discovery and development “the world’s most complicated engineering process.” But the fact that the individual parts of that process are not used to working with each other is a hindrance to anyone attempting to do systems biology — an approach that, McBurney says, “by its nature, is the pulling together of different modalities describing a system.”
For instance, he says, “the preclinical people are not used to working with the clinical people, but if you wanted to use systems biology to ask the question, ‘Are the biochemical patterns underlying a disease in man exactly the same as the biochemical patterns in an animal model of that disease?’ then you have to pull preclinical and clinical together.” Beyond clinical and preclinical, McBurney says proteomics, transcriptomics, metabolomics, imaging, genomics, and informatics have each operated as separate silos. In some companies a certain group has been put in charge of systems biology, but without the authority or ability to integrate data from all the other groups, he says.
How does Beyond Genomics help? “We can talk to each of the silos in the language they understand,” McBurney says. He describes the Beyond Genomics “solution” as one that provides fully integrated results from wet lab and in silico experiments — either the customer’s own data, if it exists in a format that can be integrated, or original research carried out by Beyond Genomics — based on questions or hypotheses that pharma customers generate.
“In some cases it’s the question that asks, ‘How valid is this animal marker?’ In other cases it’s, ‘Can you give me a biomarker pattern that may involve many different molecular compartments — proteins, metabolites, genes, transcripts — that can best define a particular patient subclass within a group of patients, and define those patients biochemically rather than symptomatically?’ In other cases it will be, “Can you provide me with a set of biomarkers across departments that will tell me that a patient is responding to a drug? Can I get an early warning from a set of biomarkers, and by the way, can you tell me something about pathways that are underpinning that toxicology?’ All of these types of results come out of a systems biology approach, depending upon how you construct the experiment to answer those types of questions,” McBurney says.
Complicated experiments aside, McBurney says the biggest challenge for a pharma team that wants to carry out systems biology research is getting financial and organizational commitment to the cause: “There may be multiple groups that see the vision of this. They’re very supportive, but they’re not used to lobbying for the sorts of budgets that are necessary to do this. It’s a cultural problem that has created a technology problem.”
— Adrienne J. Burke