Ambitious Finnish Genome Project Brings Sanofi and GSK on Board

Sanofi and GSK have joined up with a project collecting genomic and health data from 500,000 participants in Finland, which could help to develop personalized medicine.

The project, called FinnGen, aims to collect biological samples and health data from 500,000 Finns by 2023. Rather than sequencing the entire genome, like the UK’s 100,000 Genomes Project, FinnGen focuses on regions encoding genes, and the variations therein. The project has collected 222,000 samples since 2017, which makes up roughly 1 in every 25 Finns.

The project aims to collect genomic information from patient samples in biobanks across the country. The participant’s genomic data is then matched up with their health history, thanks to Finland’s historically strong infrastructure for collecting health statistics from the population.

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Finland has established national registers that record every hospital and outpatient visit, every prescription drug purchase, all cancer cases, causes of death, usage of social services and many others,” Aarno Palotie, from the University of Helsinki and Scientific Director of the FinnGen study, told me. “These registers cover the entire lifespan from birth to death and have been digitized for decades, some from the 1960s.

With the addition of Sanofi and GSK, FinnGen now has nine pharma companies involved. Big pharma is interested in the project’s data because it could give them valuable information about which drugs could work in different patients. “This information will help them make decisions on molecules to be selected for further development and to boost and to accelerate drug development,” Palotie said.

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Having more pharma companies like Sanofi on board means more funding for the project. This means the project can speed up the data collection and carry out more analyses.

Given common concerns regarding privacy with an individual’s genome and health details, FinnGen asserts that it’s maximizing privacy for the participants. “All partners can access individual-level genotype data but only using the secure environment developed for this purpose,” Palotie told me. “This environment takes into account data protection and data security requirements. Researchers have the possibility to analyze the data but not to download or copy it.

Other genome projects in Europe also aim to study genomic variation in health, such as the UK Biobank project. However, Palotie told me that FinnGen has more disease-related samples than the UK Biobank.

The UK Biobank is more of a working-age population collection, where most people are still relatively healthy,” he explained. “FinnGen participants are collected from disease cohorts, hospital biobanks and population cohorts that are currently at the age where disease frequencies have increased.

With thousands of sets of data collected on patients with cancer and cardiovascular disease, this project is ambitious in scope. The fact that it has attracted the attention of several big pharma companies also demonstrates exactly how important personalized medicine is becoming in biotech. 


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