RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Drug giant GlaxoSmithKline is investing $300 million in genetics startup 23andMe as part of a four-year exclusive agreement with the company to partner in a search for new medicines and cures.

An early target for the joint effort will be Parkinson’s disease.

Busines news website SeekingAlpha noted that the project will focus on “a specific genetic mutation that 23andme has already identified in hundreds of its users.”

“We are excited about this unique collaboration as we know that drug targets with genetic validation have a significantly higher chance of ultimately demonstrating benefit for patients and becoming medicines,” said Dr. Hal Barron, GSK’s head of research and development as well as its chief science officer;

“Partnering with 23andMe, an organisation whose vision and capabilities are transforming the understanding of how genes influence health, will help to shift our research and development organisation to be ‘driven by genetics,’ and increase the impact GSK can have on patients.”

Barron has been tasked with reigniting R&D at GSK under CEO Emma Walmsley, and in making the 23andMe investment he is banking on one of the hottest Silicon Valley startups.

“It won’t yield new products overnight but Barron believes it will accelerate GSK’s drug development work, which has lagged behind rivals in producing multibillion-dollar blockbuster drugs,” Reuters reported.

The new funding will send the value of the startup to $2.5 billion, according to venture capital research firm PitchBook. The company raised $250 million last September.

PitchBook  notes that the latest funding comes after the FDA approved 23andMe’s genetic test kits sold directly to consumers that evaluate the “risk for certain types of cancer.”

“This collaboration will enable us to deliver on what many customers have been asking for — cures or treatments for diseases,” said 23andMe CEO and c0-founder Anne Wojcicki.

“By leveraging the genetic and phenotypic information provided by consenting 23andMe customers and combining it with GSK’s incredible expertise and resources in drug discovery, we believe we can more quickly make treating and curing diseases a reality.”

GSK gains access to 23andMe’s data base of more than 5 million customers. The companies noted that participation “in 23andMe’s research is always voluntary and requires customers to affirmatively consent to participate. For those who do consent, their information will be de-identified, so no individual will be identifiable to GSK.”

Initial efforts will be funded on a 50-50 basis, GSK added.

“The collaboration will combine 23andMe’s large-scale genetic resources and advanced data science skills, with the scientific and medical knowledge and commercialization expertise of GSK.,” GSK said in the announcement, which was made in London.

“The goal of the collaboration is to gather insights and discover novel drug targets driving disease progression and develop therapies for serious unmet medical needs based on those discoveries.”

The three specific goals of the collaboration as cited in the announcement are:

  • Improve target selection to allow safer, more effective ‘precision’ medicines to be discovered. Genetic data can significantly improve our understanding of diseases, their pathways and mechanisms, supporting the design and development of more targeted medicines. Use of genetic data in selecting drug targets can increase both the probability of success in a particular indication and avoid unwanted safety risks.
  • Support identification of patient subgroups that are more likely to respond to targeted treatments. Scale is critical for the detection of genetic effects in smaller subsets of diseases and patients. With over 80% of 23andMe’s customer base consenting to participate in research, their aggregate and de-identified data could help enable the discovery of a significant number of novel associations from a diverse range of people, which would not otherwise be possible.
  • Allow more effective identification and recruitment of patients for clinical studies.The ability to identify and invite patients with a particular disease, and in some case specific genetic subgroups, to participate in studies that are relevant to them could significantly shorten recruitment and reduce clinical development timelines, allowing medicines to be delivered to patients more efficiently.

GSK maintains a research operation in RTP and operates a drug manufacturing plant in Zebulon.

Earnings report

GSK also reported its latest quarterly financials.

The firm said Wednesday that second-quarter revenue was 7.3 billion pounds ($9.6 billion), up 4 percent when discounting currency shifts, amid a promising performance of a new shingles treatment.

Sales of the shingles treatment Shingrix made 167 million pounds, and the company increased its forecast for 2018 sales of the drug to as much as 650 million pounds.

The drug giant reported second-quarter net income of 441 million pounds after a loss of 180 million pounds in the same period last year.

The company also announced a restructuring program aiming to improve competitiveness and cut costs by 400 million pounds annually by 2021.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)