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August 8, 2002


Emory School of Medicine Teams With deCODE Genetics to Study Links Between Genes and Disease

Alliance With Icelandic Researchers Could Contribute Significant New Clues to Genetics Research

The Emory University School of Medicine has formed a strategic alliance with deCODE genetics, an Icelandic genomics company that is using its uniquely comprehensive population data to identify the genetic factors underlying common diseases. DeCODE has created an extensive database that anonymously cross-references genealogical information about the Icelandic population with genetic and disease data from volunteer patients and their relatives in more than 50 disease projects. The approach has enabled deCODE to locate key genetic factors involved in the predisposition to and development of more than 20 common diseases.

Emory University physicians and scientists will use the genetic clues provided by deCODE, along with deCODE's advanced genotyping capabilities, to advance clinical and laboratory research within the diverse Emory patient population. In addition, Emory will collaborate with deCODE on research projects covering many diseases and contribute extensive clinical and research expertise to deCODE in a number of medical specialties. Scientists within the two institutions expect the partnership to be the springboard for a rapid expansion of discoveries about the links between specific inherited genes and their role in complex diseases.

DeCODE genetics was founded in 1996 by Kari Stefansson, M.D., Ph.D., and Jeffrey Gulcher, M.D., Ph.D., former Harvard colleagues who recognized the potential of Iceland's unique genealogical records for conducting population-wide linkage studies to uncover the genetic factors involved in common diseases. The Icelandic population of approximately 290,000 individuals is descended from a relatively small group of settlers who arrived from Norway and the British Isles beginning in the ninth century, and immigration has been very limited since that time. The study of genealogy is a national Icelandic pastime, and family lineages are well characterized and recorded. deCODE employs nearly 600 people at its headquarters facility in Reykjavik, as well as 150 people at its drug development and structural biology units in the U.S.

Using large-scale genotyping, deCODE scientists are generating genetic fingerprints of each chromosome of the volunteer participants in its disease gene research, in order to identify small segments of chromosomes shared by patients with a particular disease. Genotypes are compared between closely and distantly related disease sufferers. More detailed genotyping of these small regions enables the identification of particular genes or sections of genes linked that play a role in the disease.

Armed with these important genetic clues from the Icelandic population, the Emory scientists will conduct their own research studies within Emory's diverse group of patients to uncover the full range of mutations or versions of these genes that might predispose individuals to disease.

"The information deCODE provides is equivalent to telling us how to get to the stadium when we know that the Superbowl is being played," says Emory neurologist David Rye, M.D., Ph.D. "The relationship with Emory will allow the deCODE/Emory alliance to find the section, row and seat more efficiently."

"The clinical and basic research expertise and experience within Emory's School of Medicine covers a wide spectrum of diseases and will contribute a tremendous amount of information about the role genes play in diseases within U.S. populations," said Stephen Warren, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Human Genetics in Emory University School of Medicine. "Combined with deCODE's significant genetic discoveries in Iceland, this alliance brings outstanding opportunities to every medical specialty at Emory to rapidly advance our understanding of the mechanisms underlying numerous complex diseases."

DeCODE scientists have made several significant genetic discoveries over the past several years that should prove useful in Emory research collaborations, including discovery of the STRK1 gene, the first gene implicated in the common form of stroke, and a gene linked to schizophrenia. In a study funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Emory neurologists will soon begin the first study in the U.S. addressing the STRK1 gene. The research team will examine several hundred Emory stroke patients and characterize them for stroke risk factors, stroke subtype, and STRK1 gene characteristics. DeCODE will conduct the genetic analysis of the Emory patient population and compare these findings to the Icelandic population to determine the role the STRK1 gene plays in populations outside Iceland.

Emory neurologist Allan Levey, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Emory Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases, has been collaborating with deCODE scientists for several years in studies involving the genetics of Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease, and Dr. Rye has joint studies with deCODE on narcolepsy and restless legs syndrome.

"Many neurological diseases result from a complex mixture of environmental and genetic causes," Dr. Levey explains, "and although we have learned about genes that are responsible for a small percentage of cases of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, we know there are many more genes involved. These genes have proven very difficult to sort out in our heterogeneous U.S. population. Working with deCODE, we can use the genetic clues from the relatively homogeneous Icelandic population to determine whether implicated genes confer disease risk in more complex populations. With more than 30,000 patient visits to our neurology clinics each year, Emory has a large, diverse, and well-characterized group of neurology patients, many of whom already have participated in research studies. "

"Our alliance with deCODE presents a tremendous opportunity for Emory scientists to participate in and contribute to some of the most advanced genetic research in the world," said Thomas J. Lawley, M.D., dean of Emory University School of Medicine, "and it gives our clinical population a chance to contribute to and benefit from groundbreaking genetic discoveries about their diseases that could lead to tailored treatment for individual patients."

Emory's relationship with deCODE differs from many academic-business relationships, Dr. Warren explains, in that the company's leaders are themselves physician-scientists. The alliance is more akin to a scientific collaboration among laboratories than a true business relationship, he explains.

Dr. Levey explains that the Emory-deCODE relationship is a paradigm for how industry and academia can work together, each contributing its unique strengths. DeCODE and Emory scientists have plans to build on existing collaborations in neurological diseases such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, stroke, and sleep disorders; to collaborate on diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, psoriasis, and autism; and psychiatric diseases such as bipolar disease, anxiety and depression.

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