TOKYO -- Drugmakers in Japan, U.S. and Europe are teaming up to discover new drugs based on human genetic data. Led by the National Cancer Center of Japan, the joint research by private companies and academic institutions will collect genetic information from cancer patients to build a database for clinical trials.
Japanese drugmakers have lagged their Western counterparts when it comes to genomic medicine. The project is expected to foster clinical trials, which would help Japanese companies bring new treatments to market.
The genomes -- that is, the complete set of genetic information -- of patients suffering lung, gastrointestinal and other types of cancer are collected for screening, free-of-charge, to identify possible cancer-fighting agents for individual patients. The patients will then be given drugs that incorporate those agents. The project has tested 400 patients so far. By 2017, researchers hope to reach 4,500 people.
The project creates genomic profiles for patients based their cancer's genotype, or collection of genes. When drugmakers perform clinical trials on medicines targeting specific genes, the consortium will serve as intermediary between the maker of the drug and the patent.
Genomic drug discovery relies on decoding the patient's unique set of genetic instructions. This approach examines disease at the level of genes and proteins to determine the best treatment. Compared with the conventional method of testing cancer-fighting agents from among the vast range of possible chemicals, the new approach promises to be faster and more effective. By attacking only malignant cells, such drugs may also have fewer side effects than conventional treatments such as chemotherapy, which kills healthy cells as well as diseased ones. The research depends on advanced information technology to analyze huge amounts of data.
Cancer treatment typically involves surgery to remove the malignancy and radiation therapy to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy is most often used in patients whose cancers have spread.
Conventional medicines used in chemotherapy tend to target cells with the characteristics of cancer -- fast growth, for example. But this scattershot approach can cause severe side effects such as hair loss and drug resistance.
The genome-driven approach aims to develop effective new treatments that inhibit the function of cancer-causing genes. According to Dr. Koichi Goto of the National Cancer Center, the project will focus on about 150 genes to study their links to the disease.
Some pharmaceutical companies have already brought genomic drugs to market. Chugai Pharmaceutical of Japan in February put out a drug called Zelboraf to treat malignant melanoma, or skin cancer. About half of melanoma patients are said to have a mutation in the so-called BRAF gene. The new drug is designed for these patients. The company is also developing a gene-targeting treatment for lung cancer.
Japanese drugmaker Eisai has also begun developing genetically based cancer treatments. In February, it announced a tie-up with Foundation Medicine, a U.S. startup that has compiled 35,000 genomic profiles.