DNA Sciences Inc. entered a collaboration with Merck KgaA to allow DNA Sciences to use its genetic variant discovery platform for the ultimate purpose of helping Merck optimize drugs.

"We will be discovering variants in some key genes that [Merck is] targeting for medications," DNA Sciences Vice President of Pharmacogenetics Christine Foster told BioWorld Today.

Fremont, Calif.-based DNA Sciences, formed in 1998, will look for variants in those genes in three ethnic groups: African-Americans, Caucasians and Hispanics. The company has genetic information from 200 of each of those ethnic groups, as well as from 200 Asians, Foster said.

"[Merck has] a set of genes that it needs more information about, and DNA Sciences can apply its platform and find that information much more quickly," Foster said.

Although Foster would not disclose the disease areas the Darmstadt, Germany-based company is interested in, she said determining if there are genetic variances in these groups could help Merck develop clinical trials for certain medications.

"Sometimes when you're developing a medication, adverse events may occur more frequently in a specific ethnic group, or the response might be better," she said, noting that often the differences in response to the same drug can be the result of genetic variances.

An example of that would be AstraZeneca plc's cancer drug, Iressa, a drug to which Japanese individuals respond more favorably than individuals of other backgrounds, although the reason is unknown, she said. In this way, DNA may be able to identify a marker to target the responder or to keep those who might have "horrible adverse events" from using the drug, she said.

Most of the work will be done at DNA Sciences' Fremont location, although some may be completed at its facilities in North Carolina. There is a benefit for DNA Sciences in working with a large pharmaceutical company such as Merck, Foster said.

"There also is the potential to discover novel genetic variants, and we will co-own those variants," she said, declining to give additional terms of the collaboration.

"We can target our platform to novel drug design, and that's really where we want to be active because that is where we can see we're having the best effect," Foster said.

In June, privately held DNA Sciences reported that it was working with GlaxoSmithKline plc, of London, to study how inherited genetic variants may predispose certain individuals to drug-induced Long QT Syndrome, which can cause sudden cardiac arrest. Foster said that GSK paid an up-front license fee in that collaboration.

An extra bonus to projects such as the Merck deal is that they can lead to more work, she said. For example, the agreement with Merck was expected to take about two months and is nearing completion. Now, however, Merck is "discussing other potential projects" with the company, she said.