At A Glance
Name: Michael Berens
Title: CEO, International Genomic Consortium
Background: BS in zoology from the Arizona State University; PhD in cancer biology from the lab of the late Sydney S. Salmon at the Arizona Cancer Center in Tucson; postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, in the Laboratory of Experimental Oncology.
Last Monday, Mike Berens marked his 31st day as CEO of the International Genomics Consortium. He oversees eight staffers in a modest space across the street from the Bank One Ballpark in downtown Phoenix.
SNPtech Reporter caught up with Berens last week to learn what his plans for the IGC are, and where he envisions the nonprofit to be in one and five years.
You’ve been in the hot seat at the IGC for around two months now. What is the status of the group under your leadership?
The goals are unchanged. We are focused on creating a public utility that is a clinically-annotated database of gene-expression profiling. We have revitalized expO … [an ongoing expression project in oncology] and that now is well underway. We [also] have developed a massive operational readiness plan that is detailed down to the pipette. So while we have worked with pharma to create the funding streams into expO, we’ve revitalized this and focused it more tightly around what we heard them communicate to us as the value proposition.
And so we now have set up the pharmaceutical members to serve on what we’re calling the executive steering committee that speaks into the value of exp-O, and we now have revisited what it takes to get there to deliver that value [while] still putting it into the public domain.
So what does it take to get there?
A ton of commitment (laughs). We are targeting something on the order of $12 million to $15 million over three years. This is how much we think it will cost us to deliver clinically annotated gene expression-profile data in a standardized fashion for aggressive data mining of a sufficient number of specimens in the different diseases categorized in cancer. This is much else than a lot of the other consortia that have been set up. Profoundly less.
I’m assuming you have interest and commitment from not only industry but also in academia and government. Is that accurate?
You’re exactly correct. Our funding sources, the ones we’ve spoken to on which commitments are in place, are from the pharmaceutical industry. But we have active conversations with various other foundations, and with some of the broader programs through the NIH.
Can you say which companies have committed cash?
The hesitancy I have on that is that I really need this executive steering committee to work more or less on block with us. I need them to feel like they jump in and that they’re working together as a group.
If I start parceling those out based on the sequence in which they were able to move their administrative process to deliver a check, I’m considering that to be an artificial measurement of commitment or vision that I don’t want to have manifest in the story.
We’re going to land eight to 10 pharmaceutical companies; they’re the big players, and I would really rather have that announcement come out as. ‘This is the nucleation team that got this rolling.’ And as we touch on other diseases that may be more in the focus of other pharmaceutical companies.
When do you expect this announcement to happen?
Obviously the IGC focuses currently on oncology. When do you think it will begin focusing on other disease states?
I really appreciate the question, because you’re touching on some real passion on my side; the fulfillment I’m getting in my role as CEO of IGC is making things happen. And that gives me the resource to build the talent to deliver on that. But they’re two very, very different pursuits:
One is creating something from nothing, which I just have this huge fulfillment in doing. And the other is to deliver on that, which becomes a fulfilling management task. And I have more skill sets to the former than to the latter.
My life has been touched by [multiple sclerosis] through family members, and so I’d like to see a neurological focus start to emerge. We’ve actually started to lay some of the ground work on an expression project on MS that would some up with surrogate markers for disease or response for treatments or early predictors.
Let’s talk a little bit about the kinds of technology platforms that the IGC uses. What kinds of genotyping or gene-expression tools are in the IGC’s arsenal?
Here’s how we’ve structured it: Being a member of the executive steering committee (comprising 10 undisclosed pharmaceutical companies) as a funding member … positions you to now help populate the scientific committee, the intellectual-property committee, and a patient-advocacy committee. The executive steering committee will see to the population of these sub-committees where we process and develop recommendations for the governing steering committee then to roll out its decisions. …
We will also have input from the host medical center, where we collect our tissue, we’ll have voices that will speak to us on the needs of the pharmaceutical industry. Some of them have strong interest in expression profiling database developed either on the same platform they’re using in-house, or they actually want to have a different platform.
We’re encountering a lot of interesting input into that decision-making process. We may end up using two platforms. So we’ll have a scientific-advisory sub-committee that will wrestle with those components. We’ll have a bioethics committee that makes sure that we managed out tissue-collection processing in ways that are compliant with regulations and ensure privacy while still giving the most value to the clinical annotation in the databases. …
There is also strong intent on the part of our members to collect not only the tumor tissue, but also to collect peripheral blood, serum samples, tissue adjacent to tumors, and that constellation of additional resources allows us to … develop very powerful collateral databases that will complement the expO.
We will have these resources in hand, and we are developing a management tool whereby we can get these tissues into other investigative programs … that would speak back to the initial database that we would create.
I think that the opportunity to use, for example, haplotype mapping or methylation technologies will give us fantastic insight into response predictors for therapy, or novel targets in unique population groups.
I really think we’re creating something very powerful here.
You’ve been in the hot seat now technically for about a month. What’s it like? What are some of the challenges you have that you may not have foreseen a month ago?
We’re doing the right thing for the right reason. … There is also the challenge of communicating the story to the press, to one of the funding members, to someone with the … National Cancer Society, or these various cancer foundations that are interested in hearing about our project.
I like that challenge. But it is a challenge because they have different expectations about what it is we’ll deliver.
Where do you think the IGC will be in one year? In five years?
In one year we will be one-third of the way through the way of our expression project for oncology, and we will be releasing into the public domain the first iteration of selected subsets of the tumor specimens that have been profiled. …
We will moving into our second disease tissue-collection phase, so we will be moving into maybe multiple sclerosis or cardiovascular disease.
Also, one year from now we’ll be nine months from moving across the street into our permanent research building in downtown Phoenix, two blocks from Bank One Ballpark, which is the home of the [baseball team] Arizona Diamondbacks.
In five years, I think the consortium will move from having developed expression-profile database to serving as a broker for correlative studies that we can help to create or manage other databases that speak back into these expression-profile paradigms of human disease, and finding better diagnostic and prognostic markers.
Where we really want to go is into therapeutic targets. As those databases get mined and linked, we envision catalyzing great discoveries in human disease.