Ireland’s unique population could cure a world of health problems

1 Jun 2017

Daniel Crowley, acting CEO, Genomics Medicine Ireland. Image: Luke Maxwell

It’s in the genes, according to Daniel Crowley of Genomics Medicine Ireland.

Most people living in the affluent Dublin suburb of Dalkey would be aghast to learn that Dalkey Island was once one of the largest slave trading outposts in western Europe and, for hundreds of years, Irish tribes sold Irish slaves to Viking traders.

Future Human

As Daniel Crowley, acting CEO of Genomics Medicine Ireland, relates this information, I dead-pan that not much has changed – we now call them hiring fairs.

‘People are not average, people are individual and everyone is different. The ultimate vision would be to have every drug personalised for you and based specifically on your genome’

The links between Iceland and Ireland are part of the Genomics Medicine Ireland (GMI) story, and not for the reasons of bankers or marauding Vikings.

Iceland and Ireland are some of the few places on Earth with homogeneous populations that lend themselves to advanced genetics research.

Last year, Irish life sciences and data analytics start-up GMI revealed plans to create 150 new jobs in Cherrywood, Dublin after securing $40m in Series A funding.

Investors in the company – which collects, manages and analyses genomic data – include Google Ventures, the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, Arch Venture Partners and Polaris Partners.

The investment will enable GMI to undertake comprehensive population-scale genome studies.

A population-scale solution to world problems

GMI is creating 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 last year by a group of leading life sciences entrepreneurs, investors and researchers. It now includes Amgen, among its founders.

“With every study we are doing, we are collecting blood, getting real DNA and biochemistry, and we are converting that into these huge and very deep data layers, and we are marrying that with clinical data so we can correlate the tow to find out the origins of complex disorders,” Crowley explained.

The origins of GMI are interesting. The common thread is Arch Venture Partners, which had invested in genetics and genomics companies such as Iceland-based Decode Genetics.

“Decode, in particular, made the scientific observation that if you could collect enough data and sequence the genetics of enough people with a particular disease, you could compare that against what the average profile looks like and you might be able to see the differences.

“This might tell you how to treat or diagnose diseases and maybe even cure them.

“Iceland has characteristics that are attractive to geneticists and which are shared by Ireland. The nice thing about having population homogeneity is that you get a really good signal to noise ratio – anything that is unusual pops up much quicker.

“But Iceland’s population was too small and we needed a bigger population. Genetics is such a powerful platform technology that it really affects what it is to be human in every way that matters,” said Crowley.

Mapping the human genome

The crucial breakthrough was, of course, the mapping of the human genome in 2001.

“The scientific question for us was if there are other populations other than Iceland that are larger and that have a similar homogeneity, and Ireland was one of the few answers to that.

“Ireland is in a relatively unique situation where there is this beautifully homogeneous population relative to everywhere else. From our point of view, this gives us much more statistical power when it comes to looking for genetic patterns.

“We still need to get an awful lot of data. This requires tons of compute power with sophisticated algorithms to mine it, but doing it anywhere else would have been much more difficult.

“But, aside from the genes, there are other factors that made us select Ireland: both compute and pharma are key pillars of the Irish business ecosystem. Again, very few places on Earth have those combinations.”

Crowley explained that the entire direction of biology and life sciences is towards quantification and automation, with the holy grail being personalised medicine.

“That is the basis for a huge proportion of the scientific novelty that comes out of life sciences now. That’s because we understand the science behind DNA and because it is actually in a digital format. DNA is really just a data representation and a form of computing.

“In the right hands, it is powerful and makes a perfect storage and processing platform. That is what DNA essentially is and what chromosomes are.”

It’s in the blood

Analysing the blood of a population such as Ireland, to understand genomics and solve hitherto incurable diseases, requires large cohorts of data.

“We are going deep on specific disease areas. To get over the right kind of statistical humps, you need to have large cohorts of data and that requires large numbers of patients and folks with conditions who are willing to participate.”

Crowley said all of the data remains anonymous. “We are at a remove from the clinical setting and we don’t store names or any personally identifiable information. We don’t need their personal histories.

“What is important is the journey of hundreds of thousands of people who have encountered a condition.”

Again, the holy grail is personalised medicine. “People are not average, people are individual and everyone is different. The ultimate vision would be to have every drug personalised for you and based specifically on your genome.

“The only way to get there is to tackle the inherent diversity and complexity of the human genome.”

Crowley said that Ireland is a natural home for doing this work at scale.

“The fundamental advantage here is the homogeneity of the Irish population, but also that Ireland is quite representative of the rest of the world.

“Because the population is homogeneous, there is a good chance of discovering stuff that is potentially causative and secondly, because we are quite representative, what we discover here should mean something for the rest of the world.”

In terms of business model, Crowley explained that GMI is first and foremost a scientific research company. “Our model is a co-discovery model, where we work alongside pharma partners to co-discover and overcome a set of complex scientific and technical challenges.”

Despite all of the advances in life sciences, he said the world is still not seeing enough new therapeutics for complex disorders coming on stream.

“The scientific community understands that genomics offers the best and greatest hope we have for tackling these diseases. We provide our partners with an ability to make potentially important discoveries more easily.”

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