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Google partners with Biogen on multiple sclerosis

Published on 30/01/15 at 09:30am
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Google is making further headway into healthcare by teaming up with Biogen Idec in order to study what leads to multiple sclerosis (MS).

The tech giant’s life sciences ‘Google X’ division has set its sights on expanding more into medical research via partnering with the US biotech, and both are now to study the environmental and biological contributors that lead to MS progression according to Bloomberg.

Andrew Conrad the head of Google X told them: “Our central thesis is to change healthcare from being reactive to proactive. We’re trying to understand disease at its onset and see if we can intervene early.”

MS is a neurological condition which affects around 100,000 people in the UK, the disease causes the immune system to attack myelin, a fatty substance that coats and protects nerve fibers. Patients can experience tingling, problems with walking and degrading vision, symptoms get worse as MS progresses.

The partnership apparently came about after Biogen’s chief executive George Scangos met Conrad at a digital health conference, and seized an opportunity to combine its tech savvy with Biogen’s disease knowledge.   

US, Massachusetts-based Biogen is certainly the first port of call for MS, given it has five drugs for the disease and is considered to be the leader in the market. Last year its Plegridy (peginterferon beta-ta) drug gained FDA approval for the treatment of relapsing forms of MS, and has strong sales potential.

It also won authorisation in Europe and a subsequent NICE recommendation for its ‘blockbuster in waiting’ relapsing–remitting MS drug Tecfidera (dimethyl fumarate). Although just recently another of its experimental treatments produced a mixed bag of results in trials to overhaul nerve loss in patients’ eyes.  

This latest partnership clearly highlights the increasing interest from both industries around the potential of technology to reshape healthcare, but is not the first venture of its kind. Late last year Novartis’ eye care division Alcon struck a deal with Google to develop a smart contact lens designed to help diabetics track their blood sugar levels.

Following that Google’s healthcare company Calico signed a pharma pact with US firm AbbVie in an R&D collaboration set-up to help the two companies discover, develop and bring to market new therapies for patients with age-related diseases.

Then there’s Pfizer who teamed-up with the Google-backed genetics testing firm 23andMe in a research agreement to find the cause of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). 23andMe is also run by Wojcicki, the wife of Google founder Sergey Brin, although they are now separated.

Continuing its heathcare roll late into 2014, Conrad also announced Google X is developing a new pill designed to send microscopic particles into the bloodstream in an effort to identify cancers, imminent heart attacks, and other diseases.

As to why Biogen chose Google instead of an academic partner for studying MS in this case, Scangos told Bloomberg: “They bring great expertise in data analytics and technology, they’re sophisticated in their approach, they understand biology.”

Brett Wells

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