AstraZeneca project to sequence 2 mn genomes for new medicines

AstraZeneca has joined hands with genome pioneer Craig Venter to launch a huge gene hunt to unlock routes to new medicines.

Under the initiative announced today, the company would sequence up to 2 million human genomes, that acted as the software of life – including 500,000 DNA samples collected by AstraZeneca in clinical trials.

Though the company did not announce the financial details of the 10-year project, according to Mene Pangalos, Astra's head of early drug development, the company would be investing ''hundreds of millions of dollars''.

AstraZeneca aimed to identify rare genetic mutations involved in every kind of disease by scanning DNA from volunteers who agreed to have their genomes sequenced and to provide access to detailed medical records.

According to commentators, the project had been made possible by a dramatic fall in the cost of genetic sequencing. It cost  government-funded scientists $3 billion and took them 13 years to sequence the first human genome by 2003. Today, it costs around $1,000 and took only three days.

AstraZeneca and Venter's US company Human Longevity (HLI), would work together to sequence the genomes, which would include a million from HLI's database, and use machine-learning software to find patterns in genetic variations.

According to Ruth March, vice-president and head of personalised health care and biomarkers at AstraZeneca, it was an unprecedented number of participants for this type of study, which was headquartered in London.

AstraZeneca would thus be following an accelerating trend in genetics research.

For years, geneticists had been pursuing common human DNA sequences that were linked to complex diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

Though the approach yielded some insights, these common variations often accounted for only a small percentage of the genetic contribution to individual diseases.

Researchers were now increasingly looking at the contribution of unusual genetic variants to disease, as combinations of these variants could hold the key to an individual's traits, according to Venter.