Working to better understand infectious diseases, the University of New Mexico is joining with DeCode Genetics Inc. and the National Center for Genome Resources in a five-year research agreement.

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases awarded the $23.9 million contract to Reykjavik, Iceland-based DeCode, which will apply its population approach to its work with UNM scientists.

"The monies will go toward a multidisciplinary approach to identifying the human genes that relate to susceptibility and resistance to infectious diseases," said Rick Lyons, of the UNM Health Sciences Center in Albuquerque, who will lead the university research.

Lyons is an expert in the study of common pathogens and microbial virulence. DeCode and the university will work to conduct functional validation of biological pathways discovered through DeCode's genetics research.

"DeCode will be identifying the susceptible and resistance populations by its genealogical studies in Iceland," Lyons told BioWorld Today, "and we will look at specific cell types of those populations, looking at identifying resistance. We're looking at several different classes of infections, as well as why some people may have a bad outcome to attenuated vaccinations."

As the third party involved in the collaboration, the National Center for Genome Resources (NCGR) will provide bioinformatics resources to make study information and results available to the scientific community. Stephen Kingsmore, of NCGR, will head the effort to design and maintain an immune response database, an Internet-based resource that will allow researchers to query and visualize the results of the project in the context of existing data on the genetics of immune response.

DeCode is known for its discovery of the genetic basis of disease risk and drug response. With the contract, the company will conduct genome-wide scans in Iceland to search for key genes involved in the susceptibility of tuberculosis, influenza and certain bacterial infections, such as pneumonia and meningitis. DeCode also will search for a genetic basis for adverse reactions to the smallpox vaccination.

The agreement is the first step in an effort to develop better drugs and vaccines.

"Hopefully, this can assist in making safer, more predictable vaccines, as well as drugs that improve our resistance in a more generic fashion against multiple different pathogens," Lyons said.

DeCode's population approach and resources have allowed it to isolate key genes that contribute to everything from cardiovascular disease to cancer, providing the company with drug targets. As of the end of 2003, the company had identified 15 genes involved in 11 common diseases and located genes involved in more than 30 common diseases. The company has in-house programs in drug discovery and DNA-based diagnostic development, as well as corporate alliances with Basel, Switzerland-based F. Hoffmann-La Roche Ltd. and Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based Merck & Co. Inc.

DeCode's most advanced drug discovery programs are in myocardial infarction and peripheral arterial occlusive disease (PAOD). Its lead compound, DG031, is in a Phase II trial for the reduction of serum indicators of cardiovascular inflammation. The company expects to file an investigational new drug application later this year for its PAOD candidate.

DeCode also offers products and services in DNA-based diagnostics, bioinformatics, genotyping, structural biology, drug discovery and clinical development.

While DeCode has focused on finding genes within the Icelandic population, the NIH contract might expand the company's database to include people from outside the country.

"Once candidate genes are discovered from the Icelandic population, then we would examine other ethnic populations throughout the U.S.," Lyons said.

DeCode officials could not be reached for comment. The company's stock (NASDAQ:DCGN) rose 31 cents on Monday to close at $8.

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