The commercialisation of 'personalised' genetic medicine was delivered a blow last week as the Icelandic biopharmaceutical company deCODE genetics was forced to file for bankruptcy. The company was reported to be restructuring but are now considering an offer from Saga investment for their drug development branch and have been forced to put their other assets up for sale also.
DeCODE was founded in 1996 by Dr Kari Stefansson, a Harvard neurological researcher who aimed to establish a business that was profitable in both an academic and financial sense. By utilising the extensive medical records of the small, genetically isolated Icelandic population, deCODE hoped to probe for and identify key genetic markers of common diseases, discover the gene function and then develop targeted and personalised treatments for patients. The company also made the headlines for pioneering the controversial concept of direct-to-consumer genetic testing, a service in which people could pay to have a sample of their DNA analysed for known disease predisposition gene variants.
Over the years deCODE has been very successful, identifying a long list of genes implicated in a range of diseases such as diabetes, prostate cancer and schizophrenia. Their research has been well respected within the scientific community and their work published in highly regarded journals such as Nature. However despite this academic acclaim, the company has never managed to turn a profit due to most of their findings not being applicable to a wide scale drug production.
It is now becoming clear that the human genome and the mutations that cause diseases are much more complicated than first thought. In fact, diseases with a genetic component are not often a result of a single mutation, but a complex interplay of many genetic and non-genetic factors and this can make targeted treatments much harder to design.
'The discovery that major diseases do not have any simple genetic pattern of causation has dealt a serious setback to the gene-hunting field as a whole, and researchers are trying to figure out their next move,' said Edward Farmer, deCode's chief communications officer.
The news of deCODE filing for bankruptcy has made some people concerned about the privacy of the data the company hold. There are worries that the DNA information they have from their customers could be sold to academic institutes in order to recoup some of the company's financial debts. However, Dr Stefansson has said this is not the case and that any data deCODE has will remain private.
'We don't own the genetic data of our customers, they own the data. We have no access to these data for anything except doing analysis for our customers. We are not selling genetic data, we will not do that', he said.