human X chromosomes

You, me and 23andMe: discovering new medicines through genetics

What is genetics and how can we use it to develop new medicines to treat diseases such as cancer? Explore how our new collaboration with 23andMe could help unlock the medicines of tomorrow.

Only 0.5% sets us apart

Our DNA is about 99.5% identical from person to person. However, those small differences in our 3 billion DNA building blocks called our genome, are what make us unique.

These differences in our genomes are called variants. Variants can cause or contribute to specific diseases. They can also give us particular traits like being pitch perfect or tone deaf, being able to roll your tongue, or they can have no effect at all. 

Studying genetics can help us understand how and why certain people get different diseases, but we can also use genetic data to identify where to start looking for new medicines.

23andMe uses genotyping analysis, which is the process for determining which genetic variants an individual possesses. DNA can be extracted from mouth cells in a small saliva sample, and then processed on a special silicon chip that is capable of reading hundreds of thousands of variants in your genome. The genome is much like an owner’s manual for your body. It contains the genetic instructions needed to build and operate the body.

When your cells take you down the wrong path

Analysing DNA in this way can tell us more about risks for health conditions, traits and ancestry groups.

If we better understand the pathway by which genetic variants influence health and disease, then we have a better chance to design treatments that could lead to a positive outcome for the patient. Treatments might involve turning on protective mechanisms that have stopped working or turning down detrimental mechanisms.

We know drug targets that are backed by genetic information are approximately twice as likely to become a successful medicine.1 Understanding how a medicine is working can help us avoid unwanted side-effects and enhance the probability the medicine will be effective.

It turns out that knowing how changes in a gene affect our risk of a disease, is a tremendously valuable way to help identify good drug targets. This insight is impacting how drug discovery is done across the industry.

You don’t have to be a scientist to help discover medicines

GSK has announced an exciting collaboration with the leading personal genetics company 23andMe to help us discover new medicines.

  • 23

    In humans, each cell normally contains 23 pairs of chromosomes, a very long strand of DNA that contains our genetic material

23andMe offers those with an interest in genetics the opportunity to learn more about their personal genetic profile, including information about their genetic ancestry and risks for certain diseases and other personal characteristics. Individuals can also opt-in to contribute their genetic data to a research database - allowing them to play an important role in creating the next generation of medicines. With over 5 million customers and over 80% of customers opting in to participate in research, the 23andMe database is now the world’s largest resource of its kind and has the potential to offer new insights about diseases and how they can be treated.

Through the collaboration, our scientists will be able to work with 23andMe scientists to analyse this genetic data to discover potential new starting points for medicines.

We are excited about this unique collaboration as we know that drug targets with genetic validation have a significantly higher chance of ultimately demonstrating benefit for patients and becoming medicines.

This information will help us to quickly and accurately identify new drug targets and approaches to treat diseases such as cancer, Parkinson’s, inflammatory diseases and more.

As part of the collaboration, GSK can also change the way we invite patients into clinical trials. The genetic and disease information 23andMe customers share will allow us to identify the kind of patients who are most likely to respond well to new treatments so that 23andMe can invite customers who have consented to be contacted to participate in studies that are relevant to them. This could significantly shorten recruitment and reduce clinical development timelines, allowing some medicines to be delivered to patients faster.

This unique approach – which would not have been possible even five years ago – means that everyone can help discover the next generation of medicines. Even those without lab coats can help.

References:
1 Nelson et al (2015) The support of human genetic evidence for approved drug indications
https://www.nature.com/articles/ng.3314