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Illumina partners big pharma for 'one gene test fits all' approach to cancer

26 August 2014
Appeared in BioNews 768

The DNA sequencing company Illumina have announced collaborations with three major pharmaceutical companies - AstraZeneca, Sanofi and Johnson & Johnson - to develop a single test for several gene mutations to better guide cancer treatment.

The project may represent a move away from the current paradigm of 'companion diagnostics', where a gene test will check for just one mutation indicating whether or not a single drug can be used, and towards one where a test can indicate the suitability of several drugs.

Dr Ruth March, AstraZeneca's vice-president, personalised healthcare and biomarkers, said that Illumina's partnership with her company 'had the potential to deliver an unprecedented amount of clinical information from a single test. Illumina's technology will inform doctors about the molecular make-up of their patients' tumours, enabling them to match medicines to the drivers of disease'.

Initially, AstraZeneca plans to use Illumina's technology to develop a companion diagnostic test for one of its investigational oncology compounds, as part of a clinical trial. In the long term, the aim is to roll out the technology for use across AstraZeneca's oncology portfolio.

Illumina claims its next-generation-sequencing technology allows for faster and cheaper sequencing than traditional techniques. It will be used to screen a wide panel of genes for any possible mutations, known and unknown, rather than looking for specific mutations.

So far, around 125 genes have been identified which, when mutated in cancer, can drive the cancer's growth. Although few therapies targeted against cancer driver genes are yet available, around 800 oncology drugs are in development, and many are designed to act against specific gene mutations.

As a result, there is a growing demand for cancer gene tests for use in guiding clinical trials, as well as in current medical practice.

This growing need is reflected in the fact that, just as Illumina has struck up partnerships with Sanofi and Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca has teamed up with Roche and Qiagen, in a project also aimed at personalising cancer treatment through gene sequencing.

In an interview with Forbes, Illumina's chief medical officer Dr Richard Klausner says the pendulum is swinging from companion diagnostics to 'companion therapeutics' where all cancer drugs would be paired with the same test.

'The transition to patient-centered companion therapeutics marks a new era for oncology' Dr Ellen Sigal, founder of US advocacy group Friends of Cancer Research, said in a statement from Illumina.

The Illumina-AstraZeneca deal, she continued, is 'the type of collaboration that will make real progress for patients'.

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