GMI’s Dr Anne Jones wants to make Ireland a precision medicine leader

7 Jun 2019

Dr Anne Jones, CEO of Genomics Medicine Ireland. Image: Chris Bellew

Genomics Medicine Ireland CEO Dr Anne Jones tells John Kennedy how capturing genomic data from the Irish population could prove pivotal in ushering in the life sciences and precision medicine industries of the future.

It has been around 16 years since the Human Genome Project was completed, identifying and mapping all of the genes that make up our DNA. It is crazy to think that since then, entire industries have sprung up within pharma and life sciences that are focused on delivering the precision medicine of the future using cell and gene therapy in an industrialised way.

Ireland is already in the vanguard of this movement, with companies such as Takeda and WuXi currently building the precision drug factories of the future in Meath and Louth, respectively.

‘The 600 jobs we are creating will be purely GMI jobs, but the bigger picture and the more exciting piece for Ireland is what other industries could be spawned’

But another important linchpin of these industries of the future is the important work being done by a company that is still quintessentially a start-up: Genomics Medicine Ireland (GMI).

GMI has created a scientific platform to examine the human genome in order to better understand the role of genetics in disease and rare conditions, leading to new prevention strategies and treatments. The company was founded in Ireland in 2015 by a group of leading life sciences entrepreneurs, investors and researchers.

In November 2018 reported that the company was creating 600 new jobs as part of a $400m investment involving the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund (ISIF) as well as international investors WuXi NextCode, Arch Venture Partners, Polaris Partners, Temasek, Yunfeng Capital and Sequoia Capital.

Last March GMI announced a collaboration with UCD and its affiliated hospitals in the Ireland East Hospital Group, which deal with an average of 1.2m patients. It also forged a partnership with the Mallow Primary Healthcare Centre, said to be the first entry by a genomics research company into the primary care sector in Ireland, giving access to the 120,000-plus patients the centre sees every year.

Currently, GMI is studying seven disease areas including multiple sclerosis (MS) and asthma. By the end of the year this will have grown to 19 diseases, including diabetes and various cancers.

Tipperary native Dr Anne Jones became CEO of GMI late last year. A 25-year veteran of the life sciences industry, she joined from the US Danaher Corporation where she was vice-president and general manager in charge of Pall Corporation’s lab, food and beverage business.

Prior to that, she was vice-president of strategy and business development at Agilent Technologies where she led business development and M&A activities for Agilent’s $2.3bn life sciences and applied markets division, and developed the strategy for Agilent’s successful entry into cell analysis.

Return of the native

Speaking with, Jones’ main challenge today is scaling GMI to achieve its goal of gathering the representative clinical data of the Irish population – a complex task.

The value that GMI promises is that capturing clinical data on Ireland’s homogeneous population could unearth a treasure trove of data that will power the creation of the life-saving drugs and treatments of the future.

“When the samples come in, they go to the lab,” she explained. “After the sequencing is done, when the lab work is done, then comes the data analysis and the data science is around that piece, and this is mostly desk-based, people doing complex things on computers.”

Jones said that the ultimate goal is to analyse 60 disease types.

“You are looking at the different situations. It could be someone who is healthy versus someone with a particular disease and finding out the genetic variants between what is a healthy population versus one with a disease.

“For a complex disease, it is not just one gene; it can be many genes, hundreds or even thousands of genes where there are things happening, and that’s why you need to have a larger population.

“But it is also why, if you have a homogeneous population like Ireland where the diversity of the population is not as broad as the US or the UK, the variations are more likely to be caused by the disease than other things.”

Jones noted that in Ireland, for example, arthritis is pretty common. She added: “MS has more prevalence in northern Europe than in other parts of the world. There is a geographic element to some of these complex diseases.

“And then there is an environmental piece. Not only do we look at genetic data, we also look at the clinical data and the lifestyle data of each patient. The data is anonymised, we don’t know who the patient is, but we are looking at their lifestyle and what is the clinical presentation of the disease.

“The goal is to partner with pharma partners to develop new drugs, basically. Also, not a fair amount of clinical trials happen in Ireland. Clinical trials often fail; they work on some patients and not on others.

“Another aspect is being able to stratify and see if there is a better chance of a particular drug with a particular set of patients.”

Jones said that the mammoth data-gathering task ahead will involve capturing genomic data on about 10pc of the population, or 400,000 people, to power the prediction engines to discover the future impact of various diseases and respond strategically.

“The 600 jobs we are creating will be purely GMI jobs, but the bigger picture and the more exciting piece for Ireland is what other industries could be spawned.

“When we look at Ireland as a precision medicine centre, it is not just genomics but the other ‘omics’ such as metabolomics and proteinomics.

“From that, there is the potential to attract more clinical trials to Ireland,” she explained.

“I returned to Ireland to establish a research company. I believe having one good research company will inspire others to come.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years