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BGI and Merck Plan to Collaborate in Next-Gen Sequencing

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By Julia Karow

This article, originally published Sept. 15, has been updated with comments form Illumina's CEO and from a Merck spokesperson.

Chinese genome center BGI and Merck plan to work together in order to build on their respective expertise in genome sequencing and pharmaceutical development, the partners said last week.

Under a "statement of intent" signed last week, the two institutions plan to "initiate and develop a working relationship" and to explore areas of mutual interest in healthcare and discovery "with the common goal of creating value from the massive output of genomic information enabled by next-generation high-throughput DNA sequencing and analysis technologies," according to the partners.

The agreement is "an initial step designed to bring together Merck's expertise in pharmaceutical development with the powerful sequencing and bioinformatics capabilities of BGI," said Peter Kim, president of Merck Research Laboratories, in a statement, adding that the company is "excited to move forward towards a collaboration with BGI in our efforts to advance these areas of research."

"Our team of research scientists and bioinformatics specialists look forward to the potential of working side by side with Merck's global network of scientists as this collaboration evolves," said Jun Wang, executive director of BGI Shenzhen.

The initial agreement outlines principles for future "master agreements" and joint projects. For example, to enable closer collaboration between their scientists, the partners plan to set up mutual offices close to their respective facilities in the US and in China.

Both Merck and BGI plan to build infrastructure required to support collaborations in areas including biomarkers, target validation, drug "de-risking," and drug development.

According to a Merck spokesperson, it is too early to provide specifics. He said that Merck has ongoing relationships with other organizations and institutions in the areas of molecular profiling and gene sequencing that are not affected by the agreement with BGI.

Merck and BGI's statement of intent may signify a growing appetite by pharma for genome sequencing services. Pfizer, for example, has had several human genomes sequenced by Complete Genomics.

Right now, BGI predominantly uses Illumina's sequencing platform. Commenting on the Merck agreement during the UBS Global Life Sciences Conference in New York this week, Illumina CEO Jay Flatley said that pharmaceutical companies appear to be getting more interested in sequencing, in particular to identify the best drug target to pursue, and to help them develop companion diagnostics.

Flatley added, however, that Illumina does not expect pharmas to install large fleets of sequencers, but that they are more likely to outsource sequencing, "at least in the near term."

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