LONDON - The genomics company Oxagen Ltd. has signed a five-year collaboration with six bone research groups to identify genes associated with osteoporosis. At least 800 families with a known history of severe osteoporosis will be recruited by the clinical centers, from which Oxagen will compile a database of whole genome scans. The information from 3,000 osteoporosis sufferers and healthy family members will then be screened for markers and genes associated with the disease.

Oxagen has committed £600,000 (US$982,380) to the first two years of the collection program. In return, it has exclusive rights to commercialize drug targets identified by the study. The clinical groups will receive a share of any milestone payments, to be plowed back into their research.

Trevor Nicholls, CEO of Oxagen, of Abingdon, Oxfordshire, told Bioworld International the company “will be looking for families with affected sib[ling] pairs. The way osteoporosis is usually diagnosed is when an individual falls over, breaks a limb and is referred for a bone mineral density scan.

“We will then look at other family members, and the definition of affected will be bone mineral density. The aim will be to gather samples from affected and non-affected members of the same family.“

No osteoporosis genes have yet been identified, though some, including estrogen and collagen receptor genes, have been implicated in the disease. “We know if we analyze 800 families in this way we will get statistically significant results,“ Nicholls said. The overall aim is to understand the disease's mechanisms, highlighting factors responsible for susceptibility to osteoporosis, as well as its progression.

The centers involved in the collaboration - the Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre, in Oxford; University College London; the universities of Aberdeen, Cambridge and Southampton, all in the U.K.; and Erasmus University, in Rotterdam, the Netherlands - will be linked via Oxagen. Each will be involved in planning the research strategy and the subsequent functional genomics studies on candidate genes.

“This is a true collaboration in every sense . . . with the common aim of developing fundamental insights into the genetic basis of osteoporosis,“ Nicholls said.

By the end of the five-year program, Nicholls added, the partners will have cloned and validated the genes involved in osteoporosis, and from them will have identified potential drug targets that modulate bone mineral density. “The current range of therapeutics can only consolidate and stop the disease from going any further,“ he said. “We want to develop drugs which build bone mineral density back up.“

Nicholls said he is talking with potential pharmaceutical partners now, but the £600,000 from Oxagen is independent of any commercial deal. The company will spend at least twice that amount to analyze the samples collected by the six centers. *