Entelos said last week that Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceutical Research and Development had agreed to become the first member in the Diabetes Research Forum Entelos formed in partnership with the American Diabetes Association in March.
As a member of the research forum, J&J will have non-exclusive access to a type 2 diabetes model built by Entelos using its PhysioLab simulation platform. In addition, J&J and future forum partners will also have access to an AlphaServer ES40-based compute cluster donated by Hewlett-Packard.
J&J was an obvious choice as Entelos’ first partner in the forum, as the companies collaborated in the development of the diabetes PhysioLab technology. Alex Bangs, CTO of Entelos, said J&J “provided guidance on key areas to pursue and what should be the initial goals of the model.”
Entelos’ models are primarily used to test the effects of potential drugs and therapeutics on “virtual patients” designed to exhibit certain physiological characteristics. It was not immediately clear how J&J intends to use the diabetes model, and a company spokesperson was not available for comment before press time.
Bangs described Entelos’ technology as slightly different from some “bottom up” simulation approaches that model biological systems using molecular-level information to reconstruct pathways and other sub-cellular mechanisms. Instead, Entelos starts with clinical and sample data to construct “mechanistic” patient profiles that align with human physiology rather than “statistical” models drawn from thousands of data points. While not critical of the molecular-level approach, Bangs noted it simply “takes too long” to build a working model that way. Instead, he said, “we can build a model and extend it over time over the breadth of disease as opposed to gluing pathways into cell models.”
The company’s approach seems to be working: launched in 1996, a good three to four years before “systems biology” became a media and VC darling, Entelos has already proven its effectiveness in partnerships with AstraZeneca, Aventis Pharma, Bayer, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Organon, and Pfizer. In most of these partnerships, PhysioLab has proven to be a handy method of weeding out drug candidates that would fail in clinical trials, saving several companies time and money in the process. In one case, Bangs said, a client was able to reverse a negative FDA decision using an Entelos model that conflicted with clinical data.
With a renewed focus on target validation to handle the glut of targets from the human genome project, Bangs said the time is ripe for technologies such as PhysioLab to prove their worth. He noted that current perceptions of target validation tend to hit on one of two extremes — the pessimistic view of “the only validated target is one for which there’s already a drug on the market,” or the more naïve, “this is a validated target because it does something interesting in the cell.” PhysioLab offers a middle ground between the two, he said, by indicating whether a potential drug has a significant impact on disease in a human well before clinical trials are underway.
The forum-based approach of the diabetes project is a new venture for Entelos, but one it is counting on to further validate its technology. Like J&J, future participants in the project will also have the opportunity to influence the direction and scope of the PhysioLab technology. Acknowledging the tricky intellectual property issues of such a partnership strategy, Bangs said that anything added to the model will be shared among participants, but noted that “partner-specific customization will remain their information.”
An additional attraction for potential partners should be the Hewlett-Packard Diabetes BioCluster that will tackle the number-crunching to process the tens of thousands of parameters of each simulation. Originally built by Compaq in May 2000, the BioCluster is comprised of 27 AlphaServer ES40 four-processor nodes, each with 54 gigabytes of local storage. Hewlett-Packard plans to expand its power over the course of the project to a half a teraflop and a terabyte of storage. The system, which Entelos and Hewlett-Packard say is the largest single high-performance computer in the world dedicated to a single disease, will be donated to the ADA but managed and maintained by Entelos.
The Diabetes Research Forum, the ADA’s first drug discovery and development alliance, is expected to continue for at least three years. Only a limited number of partners will participate, said Bangs, adding that he’s seen “significant interest” so far.