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With $15.5M Grant, EU Consortium to Sequence 1,100 Exomes to Develop Diagnostics for Neurologic Diseases

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A consortium of 18 European and Australian institutions and industry partners will spend five years sequencing the exomes of 1,100 patients with neurodegenerative and neuromuscular diseases to create diagnostic panels and uncover novel therapeutic targets.

The group, known as the Neuromics Consortium, is funded with €12 million ($15.5 million) under the European Union's seventh framework program.

Headed by the University of Tübingen, the project will involve collaboration between 12 academic centers. Iceland's Decode Genetics will do the sequencing and will support analysis and return of results to participants. The group also plans to work with Agilent Technologies to develop and validate targeted sequencing-based diagnostic panels for specific neurologic diseases, including ataxia/paraplegias, spinal muscular atrophies and lower motor neuron diseases, and neuromuscular diseases, according to Tübingen's Holm Graessner, the manager of the consortium.

Graessner told Clinical Sequencing News in an email that the Neuromics Consortium hopes its work will yield better diagnostic panels that can increase the diagnosis rate for ten main neurodegenerative and neuromuscular disease types — including ataxia, spastic paraplegia, Huntington's disease, muscular dystrophy and spinal muscular atrophy — as well as provide information on genes and pathways that could inform new treatments.

According to the consortium, 30 percent to 80 percent of patients with these diseases are still undiagnosed by current single-gene tests or gene panels, and cohorts for each individual disorder are small. By combining patient groups and data from many centers and looking for commonality between some of these diseases, the consortium hopes to create diagnostics that cover a greater range of causative mutations.

While each specific disorder the group will study is relatively rare, many have overlapping manifestations, which suggest similarities in disease pathways pointing to common therapeutic strategies, according to the group.

Graessner said that the project's whole-exome sequencing component will take place mostly in the first two years. According to the consortium's plan, Decode Genetics — which expanded last year from array-based SNP genotyping research to a next-gen sequencing approach (CSN 11/9/2011) — will use its Illumina HiSeqs to sequence at least 1,100 subjects. The group expects this to increase the percentage of disease genes known for some of the more heterogeneous diseases in the set from about 50 percent to 80 percent.

According to Graessner, RNA sequencing is also part of the plan, as well as proteomic and other 'omic analyses, especially as the researchers move from sequencing toward diagnostic panel development and therapeutic target research.

"We plan to [do whole-exome sequencing for] 1,100 subjects for gene identification … equally distributed over 10 disease areas," Graessner wrote. "[This] will be done mainly in the first two years. However, for some of the diseases, such as ataxia/paraplegias, we have diagnostic panels already and in that case we [will] do the panels first and send the still unclear families for WES or WGS," he wrote.

Graessner said that the group is just now shipping its first sample package to Decode. When this is finished the group will hold a workshop to discuss and train all the participating academic centers in the use of the Decode database for analysis of the results.

He said the team plans to work with the Halo Genomics division of Agilent, to validate diagnostic panels for ataxia, spinal muscular atrophies, lower motor neuron disease, and neuromuscular diseases. Halo was acquired by Agilent last year, and had developed an enrichment technology dubbed HaloPlex that it said was especially suited for targeted gene panels less than one megabase in size (IS 12/6/2011).

The group's bioinformatics partner, Ariadne Genomics, will also analyze data to support the diagnostics research, as well as research on potential novel therapeutic targets, according to Graessner.

In a document describing the project, the consortium wrote that at the end of the funding period, it expects "to have elucidated the genetic basis for [more than] 80 [percent] of investigated patient groups."

According to the group, the new genes will be added to existing databases and used to develop the first overlapping gene panel that can be used to diagnose several of these individual diseases, "overcoming time consuming and costly single gene analysis."

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