Quebec group aims to bring unity to genomics industry

TARRYTOWN, NY — A Quebec group promoting international cooperation between researchers in the field of population genomics has received $1 million in seed money.

Montreal-based Public Population Project in Genomics,

or P3G, a 14-month-old not-for-profit founded on the principle that harmonizing efforts between biobanks or population studies will ensure future “”cross-talk,”” told attendees of the Biobank Summit II it had received financial support from Genome Canada and Genome Québec, which receive government funding.

“”No single cohort — no one population study — will be able to do everything that it promises to do if you can’t pool data across the different projects,”” said P3G founder Bartha Knoppers, the Canada Research Chair in Law and Medicine.

Knoppers wrote 14 months ago to the heads of various genomic-related projects about sharing data and putting in place common ethical and legal approaches.

In creating the organization, she explained she was also influenced by efforts of the Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms for Biomedical Research consortium (to create gene-mapping tools) and HapMap 2 (to find genes associated with disease).

Although Knoppers is uncertain how long the funding will last, she said she will earmark part of the money to make key hires like a genetic epidimeologist to build the database and an executive director to run the operation.

Still publicly driven, P3G is not yet working with private drug companies. Instead it plans to approach global foundations and governments to underwrite its work with partners like GenomEUtwin in Europe, the Estonian Genome Project, CARTaGENE in Québec and CIGMR in the UK.

“”Funding is a very big challenge because what you’re building is not some new wonder drug,”” explained Knoppers. “”You’re building a research infrastructure… “”

Because of a lack of “”immediate deliverables,”” the pharmaceutical sector is uninterested in P3G’s work at the moment, she said. Meanwhile, governments still want to know the benefit of collecting and analyzing human data, but offer the industry financial support “”project by project, researcher by researcher, repository by repository,”” she said.

“”The benefits of these repositories (or biobanks), of these research infrastructures, are that they make for better science, and ultimately faster science, and obviously more precise therapies and cures.””

Knoppers believes pharmaceutical companies in the private sector will eventually be keen to play an active part in biobanks.

“”If they think that they now have a drug that corresponds to one particular genotype, but not to another, they could validate their findings against this research infrastructure. So I think they’ll definitely want to use it. Whether they’ll support it is another issue.””

On the west coast, the iCAPTURE Centre, a UBC research lab based at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, is working towards solving the problems of heart, lung, and blood vessel diseases.

The idea is to make lab discoveries clinically applicable, said Dr. Richard Hegele, a professor in pathology and laboratory medicine at the Universityof British Columbia and principal investigator in the St. Paul’s lab.

The research centre was created four years ago with the infusion of $21 million of infrastructure funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation and its partners.

With IBM’s help, iCAPTURE built a registry containing “”various kinds of tissue and other kinds of specimens”” from patient hearts, blood vessels and lungs, he said.

Hegele said iCAPTURE uses information technology to improve “”the quality and impact of our science,”” including developing ontologies (the study of existence) and nosologies (disease classification), increased data standardization and language operability.

IBM provides the centre with hardware and software. iCAPTURE is beta-testing applications IBM wants to explore in its health care division.

With the rise of biobanks, countries that stand ready to lead include Canada and some European nations with universal health care, according to Knoppers. She said their health systems have “”unique identifiers”” for medical insurance that allow them to download from medical insurance programs data coded according to the “”health events”” of patients. This cannot be done in countries like the U.S. because of diverse insurers.

Canada also has other other advantages, she added. “”I think Canadians have a very strong history of being able to do very large clinical trials , of networking and collaborating. Our country’s big and we’re well spread out.

“”So in a way we’ve learned that united we stand, divided we fall.””


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