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Vanderbilt Spins Out Nashville Biosciences to Offer BioVU, PheWAS Services to Pharma

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CHICAGO (GenomeWeb) – Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, is putting its genomics and bioinformatics expertise behind a newly unveiled commercial entity offering services and technology to the pharmaceutical and diagnostics industries.

Called Nashville Biosciences, the wholly owned subsidiary of Vanderbilt will lean heavily on BioVU, Vanderbilt's bank of longitudinal medical records and DNA samples that now contains more than 250,000 specimens.

"There were a couple of things that the medical center was trying to accomplish with the creation" of Nashville Biosciences, or NashBio, said Chief Operating Officer Leeland Ekstrom. "One was to create a better model to help outside entities make use of some of the data in BioVU, and it's really a testament to the resource that has been built up," Ekstrom said.

The company, which had been operating in stealth mode for about two years before its unveiling yesterday, has focused much of its energy to date on phenome-wide association studies to guide R&D, including early-stage prioritization of drug targets. VUMC, through the laboratory of bioinformatician Joshua Denny, developed the PheWAS technique for linking deidentified genomic and electronic health records data with billing codes.

The other big area that we've focused on is studying different disease populations," using deidentified medical records from BioVU to identify specific maladies via risk factors and observations of disease progression. This helps researchers find new variants and mutations, Ekstrom said.

Ekstrom, the managing director of BioVU partnerships since 2015, actually joined Vanderbilt in 2015 "to lead the design and creation of Nashville Biosciences," according to his LinkedIn profile.

According to Ekstrom, numerous principal investigators involved in BioVU have heard from pretty much every pharma company over the years expressing interest in applying BioVU data to pharma R&D.

"The goal with NashBio was to create a dedicated point of contact, a dedicated model, dedicated group of people responsible for that type of work, rather than try to have it spread across different labs," Ekstrom said. "We're meant to be 100 percent focused on working with the outside world and serving directly the companies that we're partnered with, as opposed to driving independent research."

NashBio named Celgene, Pfizer, Goldfinch Bio, and Population Bio as pre-launch partners. The company listed three case studies on its website, though did not specify which partners were involved in each one.

"We've set ourselves up as a services and analytics partner to work with those companies," Ekstrom said. "[We're] really an enabler of research and development in those companies, so it will be helping them do things faster, more efficiently, hopefully more cheaply, and hopefully getting new drugs and diagnostics to market that way."

One case study involved a "top 20 pharmaceutical company" — Pfizer fits this description — that turned to PheWAS and BioVU to identify disease phenotypes that might correlate to potential drug indications in hopes of prioritizing a list of 23 potential early-stage targets. NashBio ran SNP data from the BioVU database through a phenome-wide study to score phenotypes and quickly analyze disease hypotheses to whittle the target list down to four, according to the website.

Because BioVU is a diverse database from across a major academic health system, it is not geared to any one area of study. "What that allows us to do is work with and promote it to a broad array of partners and companies across the therapeutic spectrum, whether it's metabolic disease, cardiovascular disease, oncology — pick your therapeutic area, we certainly have patients of interest," Ekstrom said. "It's really driven based on what the interest is of the companies that we're working with."

NashBio is leaning heavily on informatics tools developed at Vanderbilt. "We are standing on the shoulders of giants in that regard," Ekstrom said.

Denny is but one such luminary, but a high-profile one since he heads the data and research center for the nationwide Precision Medicine Initiative's All of Us research program. His lab received a $71 million budget to build All of Us on behalf of the PMI.

Ekstrom said he is interested in working with Denny's lab to refine PheWAS methodology to help streamline the drug discovery process. The new company also will be looking for additional computing resources that might guide this quest by merging outside data with PheWAS results.

NashBio currently has six employees on the business and scientific side, backed by a small support team. The company is looking to hire a chief scientific officer right now.

"We're looking to grow now that we're out and visible, both in the bioinformatics/data science domain [and] adding more capability and knowledge on the human genetics side," Ekstrom said.

As a wholly owned subsidiary of VUMC, the young company does have access to Vanderbilt researchers. "If there is specific disease expertise that we need to pull in, we are certainly empowered to do that if there's a mutual fit between the company we're working with and the researcher," Ekstrom explained.

He eventually would like to become less reliant on Vanderbilit's technology resources, however.

"We're not whole yet in that regard," Ekstrom said. "We're still kind of a hybrid between NashBio and borrowing some of the resources from Vanderbilt."

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