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BC Platforms System Seeks to Unravel Mysteries of Multiple Sclerosis

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CHICAGO (GenomeWeb) – In September, BC Platforms introduced BCRquest.com, a system for analyzing and viewing deidentified genomic and clinical data from multiple biobanks.

The technology now is getting its first major test, trying to unravel some of the mysteries of multiple sclerosis on behalf of Biogen and a nonprofit called the Accelerated Cure Project for MS.

Basel, Switzerland-based BC Platforms is going all out trying to prove the value of BCRquest.com. The goal, according to Anni Ahonen-Bishopp, chief technology officer of BC Platforms, is to have 200,000 patients in the system by the end of the year.

The Accelerated Cure Project is an independent entity founded in 2001 on the concept of open data access by tech entrepreneur Art Mellor, who had been diagnosed with MS a year earlier. The organization will rely on BC Platforms' technology to manage, expand, and diversify its repository of blood samples and genomic, clinical, and phenotypic data on more than 3,200 MS patients and control subjects, according to David Gwynne, director of alliances and collaborations for Waltham, Massachusetts-based ACP.

BC Platforms will help the organization curate its data repository and make the information available to researchers across the earth. "This is a global effort. We want to recruit biobanks all over the world, not just in Europe and North America," Ahonen-Bishopp said.

"We are looking for ways first of all to get all of this data together and make it available for the researchers," Ahonen-Bishopp continued.

"ACP is doing the heavy lifting here, finding the information, finding the researchers. We help them to collect and manage that collection and we will be helping them harmonize the data, making sense out of it, also possibly finding different methods and tools that will fit that … disease-specific collection better than existing solutions," she added.

BC Platforms also will be helping Biogen mine the data in the ACP collection. The Accelerated Cure Project and Biogen tapped BC Platforms to provide genomic data analysis and management technology in pursuit of new insights about multiple sclerosis.

"Hundreds of genetic variants have been associated with MS, but their functional relevance is still unclear. We still have considerable work to do to understand how genetic variations influence susceptibility to MS, the timing of symptom onset, disease progression, and treatment response," Karol Estrada, Biogen's associate director of statistical genetics and genetic epidemiology," said in statement.

"By combining Biogen's expertise in neurological diseases with advanced cloud and genomic data management and analytic capabilities, we can improve our knowledge of how genetic variations impact disease pathophysiology," Estrada said.

Biogen seems like a logical partner because it focuses on neurodegenerative diseases like MS, but it likely will not be the only commercial participant in this ACP-BC Platforms endeavor. "They wanted us to look for data sets and cohorts to focus on these specific diseases," BC Platforms CEO Tero Silvola said.

There will be other collaborators, Silvola promised, though he declined to identify potential additions. He said that several undisclosed partners have begun adopting BCRquest.com for MS research and promised more announcements in the next few months.

"The whole picture of the disease is covered in all of these repositories that ACP is collecting. Biogen is probably wanting to focus on a few points in there, finding these targets, trying to validate possible hypothetical targets," Ahonen-Bishopp said. "We are there as an enabling support platform."

Much of the initial work BC Platforms will be handling is the automation of certain mundane tasks like the harmonization of data from hundreds of MS research projects. "Once you've passed that point, it all becomes fairly streamlined, fairly automated. The tools become more standard because you have standardized data, and suddenly things get a good notch easier," Ahonen-Bishopp said.

The idea for BCRequest.com actually came from the Open Biobank Research Enhancement Alliance according to Ahonen-Bishopp. OBREA, which BC Platforms formed in 2016, convenes pharmaceutical companies, biobanks, research organizations, and technology vendors to brainstorm ideas and policies of what might be possible, including legal issues. Biogen, ACP, and another technology partner, Microsoft, are among OBREA participants.

A group of commercial partners — mostly pharma companies — approached BC Platforms and asked the vendor whether it could connect isolated data stores from the 20 or so countries it operates in.

"The starting point was the understanding that the research in pharma needs a very holistic perspective to different types of haplotypes," Silvola said. No single biobank was big enough by itself. "The true value lies when you can start comparing information in different countries at the same time," Silvola said.

Thus, OBREA was born.

"It's about the scale and it's also about the quality [of data]," Silvola said. Finland, where Silvola hails from, generally has good clinical data, but it is a small country with limited ethnic diversity.

"This country has a long history in making sure that clinical data is also available, but this combination alone is not necessarily enough. You need to be able to connect these databases here to data in Mexico and data in Asia to make it truly valuable to any pharma [researcher] ultimately," Silvola said from his office in Espoo, Finland.  

Given that both OBREA and BCRquest.com are young, ACP is still hashing out its plans internally and with its participating investigators. "It's a bit of a long, involved process right now, so we're automating that with what we're going to be doing with BC Platforms," Gwynne said. The vendor will store genomic, phenotypic, and other data in the cloud and make records accessible to authorized users.

The ACP trial is a test of the BCRquest.com technology. "What we want to do is replicate something we have done before," Gwynne said.

"We work with flat file systems, which is very time-consuming," he noted. "We want to replicate maybe one of the sample-selection tasks that we did for a previous investigator just to see how it works with the BC Platforms system."

Sara Loud, chief operating officer of the Accelerated Cure Project, said that BC Platforms has already pulled ACP's case report form data into BCRquest.com and will be importing genomic data soon.

"Once that's done, it will be a short period of time to verify that what's in there is what we need. One of the blessings and the curses of the repository is that because we have such a rich data set that we've collected from the people who participated, it gives the researchers a lot of flexibility in terms of the specifics of the sample sets they want," Loud said.

"They can describe the time since diagnosis, treatment history, and things like that. That's wonderful because it allows for specificity, but it creates a complexity to sample selection that we're looking to alleviate in part with the BC Platforms system."

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