NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – With an announcement last week that it had raised $40 million in Series A funding, startup Genomics Medicine Ireland is embarking on a population-based genomics effort that it hopes will help accelerate discoveries with relevance to treatment and prevention of common diseases, cancer, and some rare disorders.
Based in Dublin, the new company hopes to sequence 60,000 whole genomes, and genotype about 100,000 individuals from the Irish population as part of its first phase of research and operations over the next few years.
GMI is building off the example of Iceland's Decode Genetics, with which it has a fairly direct relationship. Decode's parent Amgen participated in the founding of the new Irish firm, and the GMI's funders include Arch Venture Partners and Polaris, which also funded Decode and its clinical spinout NextCode Health — now WuXi NextCode.
Daniel Crowley, GMI's acting CEO, and Sean Ennis, a co-founder now in charge of research and analytics (and director of the University College Dublin School of Medicine's Academic Centre on Rare Diseases), spoke with GenomeWeb this week about how the new facility's efforts will be informed by and expand upon Decode's legacy.
Decode's approach over the last two decades has essentially proven that population-based studies offer a powerful tool for elucidating the underlying biology of diseases and identifying new drug targets, the two said.
Decode initially performed genotyping-based association studies and more recently expanded to whole-genome sequencing, taking advantage of the homogeneity of the Icelandic population to uncover meaningful clinical associations.
In Ireland, GMI hopes to harness the power of the same population-based strategy, but with attention from the start to specific disease-based goals and targets, with the hope of streamlining and accelerating the translation of genomic data to discoveries that directly benefit patients.
The company also takes advantage of advancements in technology and drops in cost that have made it practical to jump directly into whole-genome sequencing of a large number of individuals.
"The evidence is there in a strong way that now is a really good time to undertake this kind of an effort," Crowley told GenomeWeb. "Certainly groups like Decode paved the way for a lot of what we are doing here today, but I think what's changed over the last decade is that now you can do very large studies where the economics are more tractable."
Ireland's population, though larger than Iceland's, is homogenous enough to offer an attractive setting for a Decode-like strategy, Crowley said.
"We have the opportunity to sequence many thousands of folks representing many disease areas, but also layer on multiple layers of data — clinical, lifestyle, et cetera," he added. "It's possible now to do that anywhere, but doing it in Ireland, because of the homogeneity we have, means it's much more statistically powerful than would be the case in many other populations."
Moreover, Ennis said, because Irish people have seeded themselves across the western world, the line between discoveries made in this population and clinical relevance for a broader population may be a more direct one than in the case of Iceland or other more isolated groups.
"As a nation we have always had outward migration so finding something in an Irish context, we think will have a large impact," he explained.
Ennis also argued that setting GMI up as a venture-backed company, rather than a public or state-led effort, will allow it to be nimbler and more flexible than something like the Genomics England 100,000 Genomes Project.
Importantly, and somewhat in contrast to the early beginnings of Decode, GMI is setting out with specific disease-based sub-cohorts and areas that it intends to focus on. Crowley said that the group hopes that this can accelerate the conversion of genomic data into clinically meaningful or actionable insights.
Ennis and Crowley said that these include mainly common diseases, but also some cancers and rare disease areas, though they didn't detail what exactly these sub-cohorts will be and how the larger effort will be broken down amongst them.
"We have overall figures for the level of whole-genome sequencing we want to do, but this is not so much about building a database with a certain number of sequences in it," said Crowley.
"What we want to do is go after a deep understanding of each disease area we are looking at, approaching this as a sort of a group of diseases as opposed to solely as a population database … So of course we have our internal targets like 60,000 whole genomes, but we prefer more to focus on the disease areas, and maybe we will only need 50,000 or maybe we will need 80,000 for this first phase [of targets,]" he said.
The company, which incorporated about a year ago, securing some seed funding before the larger Series A it announced this month. The sequencing and computation that will be the engine for the firm's discovery goals will take place at the company's Dublin facility, Ennis and Crowley said.
However, GMI is anticipating working with a number of academic partners in clinical and research collaborations to help understand the diseases the company is focusing on. It hasn't announced any of these partnerships yet, but expects to name one collaborator — an Irish hospital — in the next few weeks.
The firm's sequencing effort is already underway, Crowley said, but GMI has immediate goals to build out its sequencing and compute facility further, supported by its new funding. "We're on the cusp of a significant scaling and looking for top talent," he added.